Radio is a wasteland these days. I remember my sadness when I heard that the last holdout of freeform radio in the Chicago area – WCBR – was folding. Back then, I had a 45 minute commute to work, and the morning show on WCBR, hosted by DJ Tommy Lee, was some of the best radio I’d ever heard. I was constantly exposed to music I didn’t know existed, as this station seemed to casually champion many little-known artists. Many of these recording acts never gained nationwide success but, thanks to a radio station that was actually dedicated to music, I was aware of their recordings and therefore able to buy their cds. This dedication to music was, I believe, what brought about the station’s demise. Their waves were bought out by a corporate radio behemoth, and that frequency became just another place to hear the same stuff one could find practically anywhere on the radio dial. [I should mention that WCBR's old frequency was recently turned over to an all-request station that boasts it will play ANYTHING, which makes for an strange mix of music. I've heard Ella Fitzgerald followed by Guns & Roses. No, I'm not kidding! Interestingly, 80s music seems to dominate the playlist.]
It’s not that I hate the music that big corporate radio plays. There is plenty on those stations that is of good and sometimes great quality. I just wish there was more content. Radio stations do not take risks anymore, and the losers are the artists who are struggling to be heard and the listeners who will never know about them. And the rub is that most radio listeners don’t even know they are missing out on anything. Radio listeners in America willingly listen only to what is spoon-fed to them by the monsters of the airwaves and have become apathetic and lazy in their appreciation of music. At times, I wish I would have come of age when FM radio was the ethereal frontier, when nobody quite knew how to harness the waves for big profit and the proliferation of music was at least somewhere near the top of the list of goals for station managers; when being the first to break a new tune – a new sound – was what the station prided itself upon. Or maybe it would have been better to have grown up when AM radio was being saturated with the strange but compelling new sounds of the rock scene – back when rock & roll had as loose a definition as jazz. But even back then, the record label and radio station leadership had the green-stained hands of the payola culture. Hmmm…maybe radio was doomed early on.
I keep resisting the call of satellite radio. On one hand, I love the idea. I can choose a satellite station that will play the genre I like. On the other hand, at any given time, I’d just be listening to a small segment of music, to genre-specific programming that is a tempting, but limiting experience. We can’t escape genre and categorization, but we can seek to avoid it. So I’m a big fan of national public radio. I see NPR as the new frontier, tho’ there is nothing really new about it. The more I listen to NPR, the more I find programs that expose me to music I’ve not yet heard. Classical, jazz, bluegrass, folk, rock, ethnic…these can all be found in syndicated programming on NPR. I recommend shows like AMERICAN ROUTES , WORLD CAFÉ (highly recommended!), and MOUNTAIN STAGE. Together, these three radio programs will offer jazz, Americana & roots, traditional, rock, and world & ethnic music that will shake up your concepts of music and its possibilities, and that’s barely tapping into what NPR offers. For a way cool change of pace, listen to some intriguing spoken word programming. My favorite NPR program is This American Life.
I can’t comment about radio without directing you to my favorite radio station – KCUV, Denver. Being from the Chicago area, I can’t listen to this station unless I’m on the computer. You can stream their programming HERE, and I recommend you do just that if you are a fan of rock, gritty country, bluegrass, blues, and all those recording artists that have blurred the boundaries between these genres. Listening for just a couple hours, I can hear music from artists like Dave Edmunds, Little Feat, Kasey Chambers, Johnny Cash, Leo Kottke, Danny Gatton, John Hiatt, Bob Dylan, Neko Case, John Prine, Richard Thompson, the Jayhawks, Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits… Don’t know who some of these artists are? Maybe it’s time to get acquainted.
As music fans, we do ourselves a great disservice by ignoring what is under the radar. Take risks when you listen to music. It’s like food, if you haven’t tried it you can’t know for sure whether or not you like it. I can guarantee that digging deeper into music, taking a journey into the unfamiliar, will reveal great treasures and your love of music will deepen.