In recent years, it has become obvious that radio, at least as the entity that I grew up with in my teenage and young adult years, has lost its groove. An overwhelming amount of musical formats now reflect the lack of imagination in an industry that once enhanced our overall enjoyment of the sounds that emanated from car radios and transistor radios (aka mobile devices from a bygone era). Of course, there will always be a small amount of stations that are still following their own musical path and playing music they believe is important for us to hear but there just doesn't seem to be as many of them as there used to be. Sadly, commercial radio is no longer the cultural experience that it once was.
My personal experience with radio began in the early sixties during the British Invasion. Initially, I listened to sounds on my little transistor radio that was tuned into the local Top 40 AM radio station in whatever town I lived in. Later, with the advent of FM radio, the experience of discovering new music became more of a creative experience. In his excellent memoir, Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside The Rock and Roll Business (Gotham, 2008), Danny Goldberg captures some of the immediacy of how radio morphed into free form FM programming:
“Top 40 had helped launch the Beatles and the rest of the British invasion in 1964, but to teenagers, 1967 was not three years but three lifetimes later…The underground radio format was created by a former Top 40 DJ named Tom Donahue, whom I first heard on KMPX in Berkeley in the fall of 1967, several months after he had the epiphany that there was an audience for an eclectic flow of rock albums, blues, and jazz, with an occasional classical record thrown into the mix. KMPX played multiple songs from albums, not just the singles. The DJs were emotional about the music and they spoke informally, as if they had just smoked a joint, which many of them had…In early 1968, after a dispute with the owners of KMPX, Donahue and the entire staff took their format to a station owned by Metromedia and rechristened it KSAN…The Metromedia chain soon adapted the “underground” format in New York (WNEW), Philadelphia (WMMR), and Los Angeles (KMET).”
Over the years, the true essence of radio began to change as the media became driven solely by demographics. The magic of FM radio's free form approach began to disappear into the ether. When I began writing this blog post, I asked myself, “How did radio lose its groove?” I think I found part of the answer to that question when I recently read a book titled The Song Machine: Inside The Hit Factory by John Seabrook which aptly describes the transition radio underwent in the 1990’s:
“1996 was the year the US Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, a major piece of legislation aimed at deregulating the media industry. The Internet had created previously unimagined opportunities for new media companies, but only if deregulation allowed them to flourish, went the argument. One of the many changes the law brought was to raise the number of radio stations a single entity could own. Before the Telecommunications Act, radio station ownership was capped at forty – twenty AM stations, and twenty FM stations – with no more than two stations in any one market. The act did away with the national market cap entirely, and raised the local cap to a maximum of eight, depending on the size of the market. Part of the rationale was that by creating large nationwide radio networks, individual stations would be able to command higher national advertising rates, which would assist financially struggling broadcasters. Within only a few years of the passage of the act, two broadcast companies, Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting, had grown into Goliaths, acquiring hundreds of stations across the country. By 2001, Clear Channel had swelled from forty stations to 1,240. Advertising rates did indeed rise, but the interest on the debt that these companies took on to make acquisitions offset the increased profits. Prior to the act, programming a radio station had been a regional art. Local disc jockeys and program directors took seriously their responsibility as curators, introducing under-the-radar songs to their listeners. Taste and instinct were as important as research in choosing what songs to play. But with the creation of coast-to-coast chains, national playlists could be devised for all stations within a particular format. This one-size-fits-all approach led to widespread complaints about homogenized programming and research-driven playlists….An academic study commissioned by the FCC five years after the Telecommunications Act passed found that the number of unique songs played on a representative sampling of radio stations actually increased in some formats – namely urban, country, and alternative. But other formats saw a significant decrease in diversity, and one of the least diverse was contemporary hits radio – that is, Top 40.”
With the disappearance of quality commercial radio, many listeners gravitated to college radio where the programming style still retained a creative bent. In recent years, I had begun to notice a disturbing one-size-fits-all ideology that has begun to infiltrate many of the college stations that have had their broadcasting licenses purchased and subsequently turned into outlets of the National Public Radio conglomerate. A recent article in New Republic magazine by Ian Svenonius called How NPR Killed College Rock explains how a significant portion of college radio stations have become infected with the same formulaic approach as commercial radio. Here are some relevant excerpts from the article:
"Of all the types of rock music, perhaps the one that is least considered and most overlooked is college rock. Like today’s “indie rock,” it was named for the circumstance of its proliferation, rather than some characteristic or aesthetic of the music (such as heavy metal, noise, punk, grind, et al)…The genre wasn’t called college rock because it was produced exclusively for or by students but was instead named for the radio stations which were its champion and proponent. In the sixties, when FM radio was less typical, the FCC issued many Class D radio licenses to universities, which allowed them to create noncommercial stations on the little-used left side of dial (typically 88.1–90.5 FM)… As opposed to commercial stations, which were committed to a highly restrictive Top 40 format, college radio was fairly free-form in its programming. College stations saw promulgation of lesser-heard groups as their responsibility; their sacred mission… Simultaneous to the college rock phenomenon, the yuppie archetype of monied liberal connoisseur had been developed—a foil to lingering post-60s leftist boomers…Central to the yuppie ideology was mature pragmatism; activism, communes, and protest weren’t pragmatic and carried few palpable dividends. Making lots of money, though, was considered very pragmatic. As yuppie tenets became codified during the eighties, its adherents needed a mouthpiece through which to promulgate their values, spread their seed, communicate to one another, and also define themselves…NPR, a public radio project of LBJ’s Great Society legislation, was chosen as their party organ. NPR grew muscle through generous donations by well-heeled corporate sponsors (Joan Kroc of McDonald’s donated $250 million, for example) and set to work colonizing station after station at the end of the dial—right where the college stations traditionally hovered…Claiming they were a detriment to broadcasting, NPR lobbied aggressively to destroy these small-fry noncommercial competitors, who were often forced to disband or convert to closed-circuit (campus-only) format. By the early nineties, college radio was squeezed to pathetic micropower status. Bullied and pummeled by All Things Considered, it ceased to exist as a variant to mainstream radio rock. An entire class of groups was disenfranchised, cut off from the casual listeners who wanted an alternative to the hair metal/R&B/classic rock triumvirate…”
With regards to radio, I think the overall tenor of the times we live in reflects the lack of imagination that currently exists in our radio culture. While there are still some stations that are broadcasting music that is not driven by demographic data (particularly on the web), the bulk of the sounds strike me as nothing more than sonic fast food. With the corporate consolidation of major record labels, radio chains and concert venues, a vital sense of individualism seems to have been lost. There once was a time when the music on the radio was a daring adventure for both the listener and the broadcaster.
In closing, here’s a comment that Richard Neer (who some of you New York radio listeners out there may remember from his days with WLIR and WNEW) made during an interview on the CNN.com site when he was promoting his book,FM :The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio (Villard, 2001):
"For a brief period, what we were doing was an art form.
It didn't last, but it died a lot sooner than it had to."
It didn't last, but it died a lot sooner than it had to."