Radio: cauldron of suck


Some new MP3 players are touting FM receivers as a bonus, in an effort to distinguish themselves from the mighty iPod.

I bought my iPod so I wouldn’t have to listen to the dregs of terrestrial radio. As many Birmingham listeners know, local radio stations are crap.

If you don’t believe me, turn on your local radio station. It’s broadcasting the same loathsome playlists there, thanks to corporate-mandated focus-group-tested record-company-sponsored hits.

They gotta make a buck, right? Capitalism works.

Except that the public owns the airwaves. I own them, you own them. We decide who is allowed to pay to license these airwaves and broadcast their news, opinion and music. If broadcasters trick the Federal Communications Commission into selling off the publicly owned airwaves for nothing, we lose. Democracy loses.

As my media buyer expert reminds me, most FM radio (save for sports talk, talk talk and classic rock) is aimed at women age 18 to 54. So I’m am not the target market for these stations anyway.

But the women I do know have reasonably good taste in music. They have disposable income, and have wisely invested in iPods, and to a lesser degree, satellite radio receivers and subscriptions. They’re not particularly interested that the local rock station is doing a live remote from Bubba’s Kia/GM dealership. Nor do they care that the hip-hop station will pay the 10th caller’s car or house note.

You can blame their short attention spans. They tire of 20 minutes of commercials every hour. They are easily bored with DJs who recorded their “live” generic patter two days ago. (Birmingham has somehow avoided a worse trend, tracking, an insidious cost-saving fraud in which DJs in other states cover several markets from one booth.)

They don’t laugh very much at Heckle and Fred’s Morning Zoo drive-time antics, with the FCC-approved list of outrageous bits. These female friends laugh at me all the time, so it’s not like they’re humor-impaired.

These women are cruel in another way. I pity local DJs, dragging themselves to another “hot body” contest or “beer, bands and bingo” night, trapped with the party-hearty crowd hungry for flimsy cotton station T-shirts and piles of Ashley Parker Angel CDs, scraping out appearance fee to supplement their pitiful salaries. But these women just laugh themselves sick. Dance, puppets, dance.

Yeah, we really wanna win tickets to the Rob Thomas concert next week, they’ll say. Cruel, heartless bitches.

clearchannelbillboard.jpgMaybe they’ve forgotten that it’s all about the music. They’ve been worn down by the precisely formatted list of 200 songs played to death each day around the clock. The same goddamned Toby Keith, Ciara, Gwen Stefani, Trisha Yearwood, Black Eyed Peas, Young Jeezy songs rammed down your throat. In between commercials for car dealers, supermarkets and concerts put on by the corporate radio conglomerate.

Even the Jack format, 2,000 songs instead of 200 songs, has already tried the patience of many a listener.

Record companies pay huge bounties to indies to get the hot artists played on stations. Program directors pay huge sums for market research: “Rate the following song by pressing 1 to 5 on your touchtone phone.”

Birmingham has killed many a noble station that has strayed too far from the mainstream. It starts out with a fresh sound, not a copycat of other formats. It builds a big following, then gets raped by its corporate master. A program director is replaced, DJs are laid off, and soon it sounds like the other 17 stations.

Even the public radio station hews closely to nine parts classical, one part news. Jazz was deemed too expensive years ago, though other public radio stations (including the smaller one in Tuscaloosa) have managed to keep it on the air.

American homes typically have two or three TV sets, but a dozen radios. Count them in your head, including clock radios, portable radios, broken ones in the attic and now, MP3/radio combos.

But given the choice between listening to your beloved collection of MP3s or the heinous audio barrage of commercial radio, what are you the program director going to pick for your audience of one? All your favorites, all the time.


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