Monday, September 23, 2013

Why Radio Sucks

I used to have a car with a teeny little hole in it that I could plug my mp3 playing device into.  It was quite luxurious having hundreds and hundreds of songs, customized playlists, and no commercials while I was commuting.  Now, however, I drive a car without that teeny little hole.  It has a CD player, but I tend to get bored with CDs, even my own mixes, after a while.  Often I find myself scanning the local radio stations.  Boy oh boy, does the radio suck these days!  Here's why...

1. Not Enough Genre Variety

This example is extreme when you're talking about the road I live on.  When I leave the house I can get a few stations from upstate New York, but when those don't come in or have commercials playing I'm stuck with about eight Jesus stations and three Country stations.  I can't even imagine that a hardcore Christian needs that many Jesus stations to pick from.  And since any Country station I've ever listened to played the same twenty or thirty modern country hits over and over, I don't understand why there would need to be three of those stations available in such a small area.

Once I'm on the highway my choices increase considerably, but I'm still very limited in actual choices, because there's three or four Classic Rock stations, three or four modern Pop stations, three or four public radio stations that all play Classical at that time in the afternoon, and two stations that play Alternative.  There's still two or three Country stations available, too, along with roughly ten talk radio stations, but I don't like listening to old white guys complain, so I don't listen to talk radio.

So, where do I go if I like Polka, or Reggae, or Electronic that's not in the same time signature and tempo as all of the popular Electronic music, or if I feel like listening to Jazz when all the public stations are playing Classical?

When you factor in that I can sometimes scan through the whole spectrum of stations that come in clearly and not hit one that's playing a song, what's actually available for me to choose from remains almost as limited as my choices while I'm still near my house.  But still, with all the stuff playing out there, I can almost certainly find a song worth listening to.  Sometimes this is true, but just as often it's not because there's...

2. Not Enough Song Variety

Most nights at work we have on a Classic Rock station that shall remain nameless, though I will say that it's "The Home of the Classic Rock".  I sometimes used to listen to the station in my car before I had this job.  They do play quite a bit of the 'classics', such as The Who and Queen, that I like.  But they certainly have a penchant for playing way too much stuff from the 80s, way too much stuff that's down tempo, and way too much of the same stuff over and over and over again.

If I'm at work for eight hours, I probably hear The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin eight times a piece, Tom Petty six or seven, AC/DC and Aerosmith five or six.  And a big glob of 80s pussy-metal, though I'll admit I don't know which bands from that pussy-genre they actually play, because they all sound the same to me.  There's got to be more to Classic Rock than this, right?  You could fill up almost your whole day of programming with just Beatles songs, but for some reason they only have three in their rotation.  "Revolution", "Come Together", and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" are good songs, but come on!  It's the frickin' Beatles!  Are those really the only three songs worthy of being put on the air?

I'd estimate that the station only has about three to four hundred songs in their library.  While that might sound like a lot, think about listening to the same four hundred songs over and over again five nights a week.  By the fourth time I'm hearing the same Billy Squier within a few days I'm doing two things: one, wondering why any station needs to play as much Billy Squier as this one does, and two, contemplating mass murder.

It's bad, but what's worse is that this Classic Rock station isn't the worst offender.  Modern Pop stations play the same twenty hits on a loop all day and night, only interrupting the flow for 'important' celebrity news and a heap of commercials.  It's the same deal with the Country stations, except add an exaggerated or completely fake twang to the voices of the singers of each songs.  The Alternative stations are definitely the best when it comes to variety, but since just about anything can be classified as 'alternative', you certainly find more than a few stinkers in the mix.

So, there's a whole bunch of stations, but most of them are playing a limited selection of genres and a limited sampling of what music fits into the selected genre.  Surely the stations express individuality through their DJs, right?  Right...?

3. Automation

Wrong.  As a kid and when I was a teenager, I remember most stations having at least one DJ on air throughout the day.  Usually it was two DJs, sometimes even three or four.  Once upon a time it was part of the disc jockey's job to pick out which songs would get played on the radio.  That seems to have ended sometime in the 80s, though nobody noticed at the time because there was cocaine and all the movies had robots!

Nowadays, a radio station is practically just an iPod with a giant tower plugged into it.  The playlists are completely automated, randomly shuffled and played by a computer.  A friend of mine, who used to work for a radio station, showed me the software.  While the program does automatically prohibit songs from the same band from playing too close to each other, it has no way of thinking to itself, "Gee, I already played four Tom Petty songs in the last few hours, I'll give Tom (and The Heartbreakers), a little bit of a break."  It also has no way of avoiding things like "Come Together" by the Beatles playing two tracks after the Aerosmith cover version unless an on-air personality (Can they even be called DJs anymore?) notices and manually moves one of the songs down the list.

This reliance on automation is most likely why the same stuff gets played over and over again.  The evening DJ of the Classic Rock station they play at work will take the time to move the tracks around so that songs based around a theme will play in the order he chooses, but he actually said on air one time that 'the bosses' don't like when he does that.  What?  Are you fucking kidding me?  The people who own/run the station apparently prefer a completely automated list devoid of any personal touches.  In fact, once the evening DJ is done for the night, no DJ comes in to replace him.  From there on out it's just the computer shuffling tracks, station breaks, and commercials.  Oh, and random silences.  The computer likes to throw in random silences.

It used to be that the DJs were the voices of the station, providing a familiar voice for listeners to identify with and adding their own personal influence to what the radio shows sounded like.  If the on-air talent is the voice of the company, the companies today have made the choice to boldly declare that they have no voice.  They are soulless, they are corporate, they prefer to rely on machines instead of people because nobody has paid attention to any SciFi movie about automation ever.

I don't know if things will ever go back to the way they were.  After all, thinking outside the corporate box requires thought, which requires humans, which require payment, which necessitates a smaller paycheck for corporate honchos.  So that won't happen.  What I do know is that it's time for me to proofread and publish this article so that I have time to make a new mix CD before I have to drive to work.

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