There’s been a lot of talk about commercial radio going the way of the dinosaur, and I honestly couldn’t care less. Unlike newspapers, a media that is still vital and hosts some great comics, radio has been completely out of touch ever since I can remember. I don’t see how it could ever hope to reclaim any sort of relevance.
As a kid, I listened to Oldies. This was fine for a few years until I learned every song they played. You see, Oldies are no longer being made. They stopped being made in the early 1960’s. You’d think that, even given that limitation, there would be more than enough material to keep listeners surprised. Thousands of singles were produced from 1950-1965, maybe even millions. Yet all I heard was a shuffle of Pretty Woman, Twist and Shout, and Stop! In the Name of Love. There comes a time in a young man’s life when he cannot hear Pretty Woman any longer without projectile vomiting, and for me that time came around age 13.
Fortunately my friend Andy turned me on to the Beatles around that time. The Beatles, as you know, made lots of good songs that they never play on the radio. It took a while to work my way through all their albums, and by the time I was pretty familiar I had another friend who saved me by making a Bob Dylan mix tape. Bob Dylan has even more songs that are played even less than the Beatles, which is kind of strange because whenever you see a documentary about the 60’s you hear either a Beatles song or a Dylan song played in the background. Go figure.
Tucson had a couple fairly decent radio stations over the years, but they always ended in tragedy. In high school, when I wasn’t listening to tapes or my parents’ record collection, I tuned in to The Hog, a Classic Rock station. It wasn’t always great, and they did commit the cardinal sin of having a morning show with two annoying DJs, but it did play Stairway to Heaven at least once a week so I guess I can’t complain.
The Hog met its fate one afternoon my senior year. I drove to school in the morning with my dial set to Hog. In the afternoon, driving home, I had the strangest feeling that something was amiss. Alternative Rock (or Alt Rock, or Green Day, however you want to classify it) was blaring from the tiny speakers in my dashboard. Then the station identification came on. It was no longer The Hog. Apparently this is how radio stations switch formats: no warning, mid-day. I made a fruitless call in to the station manager. I even took time from my Government/Current Events class to implore my classmates to call in as well, to bring back a radio station I felt ambivalent about but at least didn’t actively hate.
The truth is, none of the music I listen to was discovered on commercial radio. In college, I listened to the student-run radio station. You’ve got to sit through a lot of garbage but occasionally you’ll hear something that really moves you. Also, there were a few really cute girls who had radio shows so I listened and tried to like the music they were playing. It didn’t take much convincing.
National Public Radio is, strangely, the best station to hear new music. They have a couple shows dedicated to playing stuff you’d never hear unless you are one of those people who are “cool” and just know about new bands as they are formed.
Even now I’m listening to my ipod while I write this post. I have a meticulously maintained itunes library which has more music than any commercial radio playlist. When I hear a song on the radio, I either like it but already have it on itunes, don’t like it and don’t have it on itunes, or haven’t heard it but don’t like it. This isn’t snobbery; I really wish it wasn’t this way. Would you rather listen to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction for the billionth time or Exile on Main Street with no commercial interruptions?
I’d love to hear free, new music every time I get in my car. But radio stations (most of them owned by one evil company) will never work this way. Don’t ask me why. Ask capitalism.