June 8, 2003
Driving Down the Highway, Mourning the Death of American Radio
rooklynites who park their cars on the streets sometimes post signs -- "nothing of value" and my favorite, "no radio, no nothing" -- pleading with thieves not to break in. The smash and grabs are less frequent than they once were. But those of us who live here are no longer surprised by the pools of shattered glass -- known as "sidewalk diamonds" -- left by the thieves who make off with air bags, radios and anything else they can carry.
My aging Volvo will be parked safely in a garage after getting the new compact disc player that I hope to install by summer's end. Burglar magnet that it is, the CD player symbolizes my despair that commercial radio in New York -- and most other major markets -- has become so bad as to be unlistenable and is unlikely to improve anytime soon. I listen religiously to the public radio station WBGO in Newark, the best jazz station in the country. Man does not live by jazz alone. If you want decent pop, rock or country, you pretty much have to spin it yourself.
Commercial stations in New York are too expensive to be anything but bland, repetitive and laden with ads and promotions. A station that could be had for a pittance 30 years ago can go for more than $100 million in a big market like New York. Congress increased the value of the stations in 1996, when it raised the cap on the number of stations that a single company could own; now, three corporate entities control nearly half of the radio listenership in the country.
I grew up glued to radio and was present at the creation of legendary album-format stations like WMMR in Philadelphia and WXRT in Chicago. These stations played rich blends of rock, pop and jazz, and sometimes featured local bands. (This wide-ranging format enriched the collective musical taste and paid dividends by producing ever more varied strains of popular music.) Commercials were typically kept to between 8 and 12 minutes per hour, and 20 minutes or more could pass before the announcer broke in to give the station's call letters.
This format was profitable, but not on the money-raining scale required since Wall Street got wise to the radio game. Faced with pressure from investors and more corporate debt than some nations, the megacompanies that acquire a hundred stations each must squeeze every cent out of every link in the chain. They do this by dismissing the local staff and loading up squalling commercials and promotional spots that can take up as much as 30 minutes per hour during morning "drive time."
The corporate owners then put pressure on their remaining rivals -- and often force them to sell out -- by promoting national advertising packages that allow commercials to be broadcast on several stations, or all over the country, at once. Disc jockeys are often declared expendable and let go. Where they remain in place, they are figureheads who spin a narrow and mind-numbing list of songs that have been market-tested to death, leaving stations that sound the same from coast to coast.
Critics have focused on the way corporatized radio fails to cover local news and on free-speech issues, like the one that emerged when a country band, the Dixie Chicks, was booted from corporate air for criticizing the president over the war in Iraq. If the stations find the Dixie Chicks too challenging to tolerate, it's easy to imagine them marginalizing genuinely controversial news and programming.
Corporate radio's treatment of the Dixie Chicks argues against those who wish to remove all remaining federal limits on corporate ownership -- not just of radio, but of television as well. The dangers posed by concentrated ownership go beyond news and censorship issues, to the heart of popular culture itself. By standardizing music and voices around the country, radio is slowly killing off local musical cultures, along with the diverse bodies of music that enriched the national popular culture.
Independent radio even 25 years ago was as important to a civic landscape as city hall or the local sports star who made good. The disc jockeys (or "on-air personalities," as they came to be called) embodied local radio to the public. You could hear their distinctive influences when you drove into Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis or Wheeling, W.Va.; radio stations could be identified not just by the call letters but from the unique blend of music that was played in each place.
Pre-corporate radio commonly played established, nationally known musicians along with unknown locals and traveling bands. In town for a show, a young, unknown Elvis could swivel-hip down to the local station for airplay and some chat. This sort of thing was still possible in the early 1980's, when an unclassifiable band out of Athens, Ga., called R.E.M. became hugely popular while barnstorming the country in a truck. R.E.M. forced itself onto the air without conceding its weirdness and became one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century.
Radio stations where unknown bands might once have come knocking at the door no longer even have doors. They have become drone stations, where a once multifarious body of music has been pared down and segmented in bland formats, overlaid with commercials. As record companies scramble to replicate the music that gets airplay, pop music is turning in on itself and flattening out.
Those of us who are breaking with radio are saddened to leave the community of listeners to which we have belonged for most of our lives. But we realize as well that the vitality of the medium, like youth, is lost and forever behind us.