People with satellite radio and digital entertainment systems in their cars live a lifestyle with multiple entertainment options while driving. Those of us whose cars have entertainment technology unchanged since the twentieth century, on the other hand--we can spend our morning and evening commutes vainly searching for just one song we really want to hear.
Radio still drives record charts and sales even in the Internet age, but how can we buy the song if we never hear it and don't know it?
From the eighties to the present decade, my attempts to spend my morning with radio music are filled with commercials, yakking (yes, that's the word) and tittering DJ's, yakking and giggling callers on the station's phone lines, commercials, contests, bad jokes, news breaks, giggling and yakking newscasters, traffic reports, tittering and yakking traffic reporters, and more commercials. Changing the channel does no good--it's the same on every channel, at least every channel that plays anything resembling current popular music.
Every once in a while one incredible song makes up for all that aural clutter, but more often songs of a more ordinary everyday variety get lost in the triviality.
What's wrong with radio? Even people with long careers as radio announcers complain:
"I think the public is a lot more intelligent than ... radio stations give them credit for." - Dusty Street
"When you lose ... creative interpretation ... you get the radio we have today, a uniform type of audio soma calculated to garner the highest ratings by the lowest common denominator." - Jim Ladd
"I can think of a half dozen cases of a successful format that brought in audiences and pleased advertisers but was killed by management or ownership, who thought it was, too, whatever. A less adventurous format may please advertisers and owners as being safe and conventional, but the audience doesn't respond." - Bill Bishop
"Rick Carroll is an exception because he was an air talent before he was a consultant [but generally] a program consultant is someone who'll borrow your watch to tell you what the time is ... When I was at KZOZ in San Luis Obsipo [program consultant] Mark Driscoll let his tastes interfere all the time. He would not listen to request lines. He would not listen to the letters we got. He would not listen to people in clubs or on the street. He only listened to himself ... We were not allowed to play the Go-go's, they were soft, wimpy, when we were playing the Little River Band every one hour and forty-five minutes." - Richard Blade
"And then they changed the format, which they often do when something is working." - Rachel Donahue
Even songs complain about radio:
"Hang the DJ because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life." - Morrisey, "Hang the DJ"
"Radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools, trying to anesthetize the way that you feel." - Elvis Costello, "Radio, Radio"
"I get tired of DJ's, why is it always what he plays?" - Joe Jackson, "Slow Song"
What's my radio for? To the people who program what I hear, it's profit--but how can you profit when you're not exposing your audience to the songs that they'll then be more likely to purchase?
"[In the seventies] we got two new records one day, a new Donna Summer and a new Cheap Trick. I played them both and asked for calls. I got literally dozens for Cheap Trick and none for Donna Summer. The management gave me all kinds of double-talk about how that wasn't an accurate reflection of what the audience wanted." - Bill Bishop
"Just because you're a little guy working at a station in Montana doesn't mean you should have to play dreck." - Rachael Donahue
"[When a] radio station finds they're hitting the top slot, and then they decide that's the formula that's going to get them the numbers. They tighten up and do just what they think the formula is. They soon realize--unfortunately not soon enough--it isn't the formula that does it but rather the lack of formula." - Dusty Street
"Ratings are just a convenience, or rather, inconvenience," - Richard Blade
According to Bill Bishop, the same management that added a Summer disco record to its pop playlist but refused to play Cheap Trick despite dozens of listener requests also tried to get away with editing the Police's "Roxanne" out of its "American Top 40" broadcast.
Even Tom Noonan, the man who for many years tabulated the Billboard
charts, will say, "Charts aren't a Bible. They're a relative guideline."
Back in the eighties I'd wait in vain for the announcer to tell me what song I just heard, and often I still do. Rachael Donahue has said, "I can listen to the radio for three weeks and never find out who did that song."
"I'm convinced there's a lot of American music I'm not aware of." - Dusty Street
Maybe the problem lies in the demographics radio targets and the ones it ignores. Radio too often targets a male audience, and excludes women. On radio men tend to be "shock jocks" and women tend to be the sidekicks, not serious personalities, or the women have bedroom voices and are expected to attract a male audience. I can't think of a station that's ever once played to a female demographic.
When I rounded up comments for the first version of this article (which ran in the fanzine Sing No More
Spring/Summer 1995), I received responses from two guys at different radio stations who refused to take my questions seriously. I didn't use or save their comments. Now I wish I had. They would have demonstrated perfectly what was and still is wrong with radio.
"So many women have not taken the opportunity to become personalities. They have fallen into the age-old male-dominated idea of sexy .... There's a thin line between education and entertainment and you've got to constantly be aware that people are taking you very, very seriously ... You must make absolutely sure that whatever you do is credible, truthful, and as far as I'm concerned, morally right." - Dusty Street
"There's plenty of women working in radio who seem to act like they want to be thought of as having an inferior mentality, and there's plenty of men who fit that description, too." - Bill Bishop
In the eighties and nineties, the Internet hadn't yet become the all-powerful cultural force it is today, where musical artists can put up Web sites and all manner of music can be purchased, downloaded or streamed. However, that still doesn't remedy the quality of what comes out of our cars' AM/FM radios.
For my original round-up, Dr. Demento responded with, "Perhaps what we need is a new medium of radio ... so they [small operators] can make a modest living while catering to minority tastes. Cable radio is a step in this direction, but at present a rather small one."
Cable radio was an alternative media outlet in the eighties and nineties. Now that the Internet has become the most common place to access new music, maybe it's time for old-fashioned radio to become an alternative to the Internet.