July 29, 2008
Well, radio fans, how are things going at your end of the dial? With the chickens overseeing the henhouse, does the FCC got your back? Has the current bunch succeeded in dummying down radio listener-ship to the point where dial twisters actually think there are sufficient options available?
Actually, over the past seven plus years, the questions haven’t changed all that much. Commercial Radio, for the most part, remains a Wall Mart kind of place. Although the choices appear numerous, they are mostly cheap and lead-based.
Public Radio, on the other hand, historically anyway, has aimed higher. This seemingly enlightened space along the broadcast spectrum sold itself as a purveyor of knowledge for those left outside the gates of higher education when all the locks got changed.
But, alas, as our local public radio outlet has so well demonstrated, whenever the lowest common denominator tugs the well-meaning toward the monetary rewards of their commercial brethren, diversity is asked to find employment elsewhere. According to the polls, there was a dip in the target demographic. The station followed suit.
Distinctions between "underwriter announcements" and "commercials" became blurred. At least in the very beginning, when the town exuded a certain charm, so did the announcements. We knew these guys. The writing involved mirrored the overall creativity of the small ski town in search of itself. Where have all the flowers gone?
However, it should also be noted that, in those very same early days, survival itself had a seat at the table. Admittedly, these 28-years later, with KPCW firmly rooted in the community, I have the luxury of pointing fingers at the directions taken by its evolutionary process.
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Back then, paying the small staff and each succeeding electric bill loomed large. To envision the future as it played out was unimaginable. Blair, however, stuck it out and, with the help of a succession of highly-creative volunteer programmers and a revolving paid staff, pulled the station through to the point where its current pituitary problem, and the management thereof, has become the issue.
The motivation for revisiting the electromagnetic spectrum this week, other than the sheer joy that comes from beating a dead horse, arrived late Friday evening past when the current batch of puppets on the Federal Communication Commission announced their approval of a merger between the Sirius and XM Satellite Radio operations.
Satellite radio is where I sought sanctuary once the "competing" terrestrial broadcast outlets and their cronies at the FCC had reduced whatever creativity remained on the landscape to rubble. Both Commercial and Public stations began to curtail those programming traits that gave them a sense of singularity.
This doesn’t mean that those in the trenches of radio broadcasting are not awash in artistic sensibility. KPCW, KCPW, KRCL, and KUER producers and on-air personnel are a great example. It’s just that, for the most part, they are on a short leash. They are approaching the event horizon of the black hole of similarity. They are becoming one.
This brings us to the "promise" of satellite radio and the oasis of diverse programming it offers to the disenchanted. XM arrived first with Sirius hot on its heels. For a bit of hardware and a few bucks a month, you too could have 60 or so commercial free music channels to choose from.
Of course, as is most often the case within the current business models, some of the more obscure sub-genres, those that attracted discerning listeners in the first place, began to disappear. In order to come up with enough moolah to lure Howard Stern into the fold, Sirius kneecapped "Folktown," a labor of love featuring a core group of committed "roots music" activists.
Their "Latin Jazz" stream got bushwhacked soon thereafter. No longer could the initiated get their fix of Machito, Cal Tjader, or Mongo Santamaria whenever the muse struck. There public-affairs arm would incessantly "spin" these changes in the paradigm, however, as if you hadn’t heard it all before.
XM’s biggest attraction in these parts has to be Bob Dylan’s Wednesday morning "Theme Time Radio Hour." With Cadillac as its chief sponsor, one would think it will emerge unscathed from whatever programming pruning is wrought by the merger. What would we do without irony?
How the merger will affect the on-air talent of competing mainstream-jazz and alternative-country programming remains to be seen. Sirius is at the top of their game with these two genres. No doubt, the inevitable dilution of the talent pool will not be pretty.
So how are things at your end of the dial? If your radio "jones" is musically driven, I feel your pain. There is some relief available on Internet Radio, to be sure, but there seems to be less room at the Inn for diversity than ever before. Who knows? Maybe the merger of XM and Sirius will be the answer, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.