Got The Fever

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Evil Empire: Radio

I blame, in large part, radio stations for turning masterpieces of the Rock And Roll era into nothing more that musical flotsam and jetsam that’s getting shrugged off and belittled alarmingly often.

Radio stations (for as long as I’ve listened to them) have bastardized what used to be a legitimate method of tracking what is popular, into an impersonal database collection of ‘most popular/all-time top/greatest hits’ that is nothing representative of the title they’ve bestowed upon themselves. What used to be a breathlessly anticipated Top Forty is now the ‘100 Greatest of Rock And Roll’. The very vessel that promoted a nascent art form in the early/mid fifties has now not only bitten the hand that has fed it, but one can argue, has chewed it off leaving behind only dry and brittle bone.

Radio has long overexposed the heady and highest pinnacles of rock and thusly reduced their achievements to mere pedestrian mortal feats. This is their way of patting us on the top of our heads and telling us that it’s for our own good. The musicians struggling to mold an original idea, the precious time and bloody effort in the studio, the reactions of stunned and awed peers of the time who were shaken to their core and the general publics central notion of what constitutes a masterpiece for our generations – all these need to be remembered in the context of their revolutionary time and place as we listen to a track. Overplaying and making ordinary the true titans of rock, or the tracks that laughed at and laid waste to our notion of what is Top ‘n’, is similar to nullifying climbing Everest and making it seem as if it were as easily done as pushing junior in his stroller up the neighborhood hill.

I began this debate (again) within myself just a few short days ago when I went over to splash myself with a daily dose of
The Hits Just Keep On Comin'. The good DJ has a column about Beatle songs that he doesn’t need to hear again. And, you know what? He makes an articulate and solid point. Much as the Beatles are to me the ‘Big Bang’ of rock, and as hard as it is for me to hold back my impulse to snip and snipe like a jackal at an affront to the Beatles, I have to agree with the basic argument. That is, to a certain point. And I have him to thank when I yet again find myself thinking about what is wrong with radio and why we don't seem to care about it, or even listen to it, except as a means of white noise distraction.

I’m not going to debate ones freedom of opinion in deciding what tracks or albums may seem aged. It’s an objective call either way. No, that’s an opinion that if debated is like trying to box on a floating, splintered chunk of ice – no one is going to rightfully win.

What I am debating though is I feel that the central reason why the hoi polli dismiss so many classics so casually and cavalierly is because the tracks themselves have been beaten into our heads with a dull jackhammer called format radio and have lost the crystallized crown that should so proudly still be in place.

Some examples: how stunning an achievement was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run?” There is no debating this point of musical history whatsoever. But, Bruce has issued over two dozen albums (I’m guessing more) and out of all those tracks on all those albums, what is the only track that we hear on the radio? “Born To Run.” I swear if I hear this again I will take hostages! Does Bruce deserve a collective groan from everyone when they hear it again? Certainly not, but don’t blame him, blame radio and those who think we NEED to hear ONLY that track.

Same again for the Rolling Stone’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” I would rather lop off a body part that to hear that again! Once more, radio’s perception of what we NEED to hear. Led Zeppelin and “Stairway To Heaven”, the Who and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the Beatles and “Hey Jude”, Elton John and “Candle In The Wind”, Aretha Franklin “Respect” … name the decade or the artist, and it’s cookie cutter simplistic – only play the ONE hit they think we NEED to hear based on a silly survey.

These beaten down and worn out grooves are the result of a distillation process that radio has forced upon us. Thankfully, I’m sure the good DJ (who will speak of this in a much more knowledgeable manner that I could ever hope to) will note that these tracks that are forced upon us are based on those surveys I mention. The age of the greatest common denominator in radio has been with us for a long, long time. And so have the same 100 songs been with us for a long, long time. Which is why we are bored of the same 100 songs year after year, despit their lofty achivements.

Which is why the radio is pretty much irrelevant to anyone born in the mid 60’s or afterward. Those born right when radio still had its mightiest impact were only around ten in the mid 70’s, but never really knew or held stock in any type of Top 40.

The same tunes that were played by our parents are the same ones that we are forced to hear on those stations. What? Did time stand still for those managers and jocks? Did they not realize that bands like the Ramones were popular (to name and stop at only one glaring omission on present day radio formats)? It wouldn’t be so bad to play the same artists that have been around for years, but to continue playing the very same songs?

It has been noted that we are a consumer nation. So, by default shouldn't the marketing departments in the radio conglomerates realize that we bought the albums that those overplayed tracks came off of? Instead of “Born To Run” don’t they realize that we’d rather hear “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out?”

Instead of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Wouldn’t they get more advertising revenue knowing that we tune into a station that would mix it up and play “Beast Of Burden” instead? How about playing “When The Levee Breaks” in place of “Stairway To Heaven”, “Love Ain’t For Keeping” for “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, “For You Blue” and not “Hey Jude”, “Danny Bailey” over “Candle In The Wind”, and “Baby, Baby Sweet Baby” over another round of “Respect.” Fill in your personal favorites, but the point is the same.

Now, THAT would be radio worth listening to. Or, a station to be loyal to. Imagine that?

Let’s end here. Alright, I’ve touched on
1) How radio debases and trivializes rock and roll
2) How the 'Top 100' of 'All-Time' are neither
3) How radio is truly irrelevant and has been for a while

While I have ranted, I have not gone into a greater detail that others who are more qualified and versed could do. What I’ve done is provoke thought and given opinion that has long been forming as a result of observation through the years. Let me know what your opinions are.

And turn off that old school radio station!

As for
the DJ - the Beatles article you wrote gives me cause for another rant. I don't have it yet, but it's coming!


  • This is an excellent perspective, and I'm happy to have inspired it. Rather than waiting to write my own post at my blog, I figure I'll just toss off some half-baked thoughts about it here.

    Radio stations can't play everything (even the stations that claim to play everything don't), but as Kevin observes here, many/most go to the other extreme, of playing practically nothing. The great deregulation of radio in the 1990s was supposed to lead to more formatic diversity, and to a certain extent it has. (My town, Madison, Wisconsin, has a hip-hop station now, even though the demographics of the market don't really support it.) But many stations, even those in formats that couldn't have existed in the pre-deregulation era, still cling to the lowest-common-denominator ideal, playing only the "strongest" records that fit, or the ones with the highest market-research scores. With so many music choices, on the radio dial and off of it, these stations feel like they can't risk playing anything "off the grid," lest listeners go away. And so you hear "Born to Run" and "Satisfaction" several times a week.

    Certain stations, like the we'll-play-anything "Jack" formats (or like the classic-rock station I work for in Madison), have made song-to-song diversity part of their marketing strategy. Listeners expect to be surprised by stations like these. At the same time, however, these stations also have a canon to stick to. For example, my station will dust off Led Zeppelin's "Boogie With Stu" or "Glad" by Traffic every so often, which represent deeper digging into those bands' catalogs. But you'll hear "Black Dog" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy" a lot more often. Even though we're in a market niche that puts a high value on diversity and surprise, there are a lot of different kinds of people in that niche, and we're trying to serve the largest number as much as we can. It's a business, after all, and we need to strike a balance.

    Great stuff, Kevin. Everybody else: You've got ears and radios, too, so please weigh in.

    (Some weirdness is going on with Blogger comments this morning, so I hope this won't appear multiple times.)

    By Anonymous jb ("the dj"), at 12:33 PM  

  • With all due respect, isn't it YOU that decides what Radio Station you listen to? So in the end, it's only YOU you got to blame.

    It's a bit easy to blame Radio.. for anything.

    I agree with you to some extend, well... enough to not listen to any radio at all anymore, so I don't have to be bothered with any of this.

    And if I have to choose a Springsteen track it'll be "Thunder Road" :)

    By Blogger Mephisto, at 12:35 PM  

  • I've pretty much given up on radio -- I listen to it in the car that I use for errands around town, which has no CD player. When we're on the road in the other vehicle, we listen to find out what stations elsewhere are like, but we often find ourselves popping a CD into the player after a few hours. The only other time I listen to the radio is to hear Twins' baseball games. If I want music at home, I've got 17,000 mp3s on the computer as well as 2,900 LPs and somewhere around 600 CDs. I guess I just find myself not all that interested in what the mass market -- even in a medium as fragmented as radio is -- is listening to. I still do like Cities 97 in the Twin Cities, but that's about the only radio station I hear that won't send me looking for another one after ten minutes. (Great discussion, by the way!)

    By Blogger whiteray, at 3:31 PM  

  • Amen to your post on the repeated overexposure of great tunes by classic rock radio. I often find myself thinking, "How many times do I have to listen to this? It was good the first 140,000 times I heard it, but now it's getting old."

    Radio is not for us, though. It really is for a large, ill-informed, unsophisticated audience comforted by hearing the same stuff over and over. We are adventurous. Radio is not.

    By Anonymous Jeff, at 7:17 PM  

  • I know I came in late, but I just want to chime in by saying this: I have been a somewhat serious record collector since I was 15, and I got my first real PC about four years ago. After that it was just a matter of time until I got an mp3 player. As they say, the rest is history. I haven't willingly listened to a radio station (with the exception of a select few listener supported stations, such as WFMU out of New Jersey or WPFW out of DC) in about ten years. I can't very well begrudge those who are making a living and supporting families however, but basically that is my story and I will stick to it.

    By Anonymous Vincent, at 3:04 PM  

  • vincent - I sympathize with your not hearing the radio by choice - I miss hearing friendly radio terribly! But, after YEARS of being spoon-fed 'top 100' vomit, I just can not take it anymore!

    By Blogger wzjn, at 7:20 PM  

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