Radio killed the video star (and decent music, too)

Over the years, many of my old friends have turned on me. The quality of television programming has plunged considerably with the advent of these horrible reality shows. Even “The Simpsons,” the esteemed bastion of clever animation, has not registered a single laugh in the last six years among the high-school-educated. Movies also have stunk ever since Hollywood gave Jerry Bruckheimer a license to defecate on celluloid whenever he pleases. The medium that really breaks my heart to abandon completely, though, is radio.

Once upon a time I loved FM. Every morning, before heading off the glorified prison that was Andrean High School, somewhere around the city limits of Gary, Indiana, my tuner would spin instinctively to 93.1, WXRT Radio Chicago. Only after fifteen minutes of everything from Wire to Steve Earle could I step out into the impossible cold, prepared to face another day in the yard with the rest of the ostensible convicts.

Then something strange happened. The playlists started getting more limited, and they started leaning depressingly toward the middle-aged. My brother began to argue over who they played more, Peter Gabriel or Genesis.

This was not the first time that my favorite station had turned on me. Several years earlier, I had to disown Q101, Chicago’s alternative rock station, once they started force-feeding the youth Korn and Prodigy. “You mean you want me to listen to ‘Firestarter’? Surely you jest.”

In this instance, the station managers had decided to bank on the idiots, much like the Republican Party. The new electronica movement was positively dreadful, and such vile music could only be followed by the domination of aural barnacles like Limp Bizkit. Eventually, though, I found my way to the infinitely superior XRT, and got perhaps a bit too comfortable. Little did I know that they, too, would marginalize their audience and pander to the ignorance of teenagers.

On one morning around the turn of the century, I turned on my radio and heard Matchbox 20, who later changed their name to Matchbox Twenty. I thought it was a joke, or at least a malfunctioning tuner. Unfortunately, more of this soft-rock nonsense would find its way onto my station in an ill-advised attempt to attract both yuppies and their middle-school kids.

Old-school payola, the pay-for-play scheme so popular during ’50s, was back. The big labels put their money behind only a select number of hit-ready singles (like Matchbox Twenty’s “3 AM”), condemning everything else to college radio. FM was dead.

I was having none of it and defiantly relegated my mornings to talk radio. Since I was not yet a grandfather, I couldn’t do NPR. So I was left with two options: Mancow and Howard Stern. For those not familiar with Mancow, let me say that the totality of his humor actually reaches below his horrible pseudonym. And say what you will about Howard Stern, but at least he understands that irony is not an adjective.

Now Stern, after nearly twenty years on the air, will leave the conventional radio of FDR’s days and flee to that land of milk and honey, known collectively as “money,” satellite radio. He accepted a deal from Sirius Radio for a five-year, half-billion dollar contract that begins in 2006.

The amazing thing is that money was not Stern’s main motive for abandoning wave radio. Apparently, they didn’t want him. Clear Channel dropped his show earlier this year from their many of their stations, citing his indecency and the fines they brought. Oddly, though Stern had been proudly indecent for almost two decades, only recently has he begun to criticize the atavistic politics of the current administration.

Clear Channel is a massive conglomerate that holds way too much control over our aesthetic pleasures. Besides radio stations, as if ruining FM wasn’t enough, it nearly dominates the concert market. The company is the biggest producer of live entertainment in the country, and it can easily be blamed for the absurd hike in ticket prices over the last ten years. With respect to radio, it controls most of the major markets, competing almost solely with Infinity Broadcasting (owned by mega-conglomerate Viacom).

Radio has fallen to the bare-bone reality of the bottom line, and I am now left with no options. We’ve regressed back to the ’80s, when college radio was the only feasible option for good rock and roll. Of course, there’s also satellite, or even internet radio. But let’s be honest; I positively refuse to listen to music through my laptop speakers, and nobody listens to college radio.

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