Friday, June 02, 2006

Roadtrips and Radio

The Wife, The Boy, The Girl, and I are piling into the trusty four-cylinder compact today and making the trip to Northern Town to see my Dad. I’m insanely grateful to whomever invented satellite radio, since there are long stretches in which the only ‘regular’ radio stations I could pick up are either Christian or right-wing political talk. Granted, we’ll probably listen to the kids’ channel more than anything else, but I’ll take Laurie Berkner over Rush Limbaugh any day of the week.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with radio for decades. There’s something beautifully simple about radio as a medium – since it’s only audio, it’s remarkably conducive to allowing you to do other things. (I don’t believe in watching tv while driving, for example.) I was a dj on my college radio station for three years, a job at which I sucked, but I didn’t suck any worse than anyone else, and it was fun. This was back in the era of ‘vinyl.’ For the younger readers out there, music was once recorded on ‘record albums,’ which were like flat, black Frisbees. They had to be played on ‘turntables,’ which involved dropping ‘needles’ into ‘grooves.’ The turntables were powered by coal, which we hauled up from the mines before each show.

My music show was a hoot, since I knew next-to-nothing about jazz, which was more than anyone else at Snooty Liberal Arts College knew, so I passed for an expert. (“Miles Davis? Trumpet, right?”) In a moment of insanity, I also volunteered to host the Community Affairs program for a while, at which point I discovered my complete inability to conduct a good on-air interview. (My long-suffering then-girlfriend, trying to be encouraging after a show: “Well, the silences are getting a little shorter…”) But, in good college-radio fashion, I adopted a mild form of the sort of reverse-snobbery of Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity. I’ve never really lost that, either; to my ear, most commercial radio is far less interesting, and only slightly less painful, than a visit to the Evil Dentist. After all, once you’ve heard The Replacements on a station with a transmitter less powerful than a good blow dryer, hearing Aerosmith on the Lite FM station just leaves you cold.

(The best book ever written about the college-radio aesthetic is still Sarah Vowell’s breakout book, Radio On. Dar Williams’ song “Are You Out There?” also gets it right.)

Since college, I’ve only been a listener, and usually a disappointed one. NPR has its charms, and there was a brief spell in the early 90’s when alternagrunge reigned and you could actually hear Belly or Nirvana, but otherwise, mainstream radio got ugly. By the time Britney hit big, I was reduced almost entirely to NPR.

Then I discovered the joys and curses of satellite.

Since I have a long, solo commute (I used to work for Greenpeace. Greenpeace! Now I have a long solo commute. The shame…), I listen a lot to the modern jazz channel on the way to and from work. The music ranges from brilliant to painful, but at least it tries to be interesting, and there aren’t any commercials. When something really terrible comes on, I switch to the comedy channel or alternative-rock greatest hits.

With the family, though, the weird-ass modern jazz goes away, and the kids’ channel comes on. It’s a very different experience. Some of the music is actually pretty fun, in a simple-and-melodic kind of way, and The Boy’s laughter at “Poop Goes the Weasel” or “Funky as a Diaper” more than redeems the songs. Some of the music is dreadful; I’ll actually switch channels over TB’s protests when the Pokemon rap (I’m not kidding) comes on. Still, the drive takes most of the day, and that’s a hell of a long time to listen to the theme from Kim Possible.

Satellite is a sort of Faustian bargain for radio. Since it’s subscription-based, it can carry channels with small audiences, and since it’s international, even a single niche channel (like modern jazz) can find enough listeners nationally to sustain itself, even if there aren’t that many in any one market. (It’ll be a cold day in curriculum committee before the Lite Hits FM station plays Soulive or Medeski, Martin, and Wood.) But the increased diversity available to a given listener comes at the cost of a decreased diversity of providers. The joy of college radio is/was its sheer amateurism, the way you never really forget that you’re listening to students in a given place. Satellite is from no place. To the extent that it slices audience from lame local stations, it will decrease the number of dj’s overall.

(If dj’s go the way of elevator operators, college radio will have to rethink itself. And podcasting is a very different animal, since it’s asynchronous and intellectual property laws bar most music.)

It’s sort of like the effect of Amazon on small bookstores. Small bookstores can’t compete with Amazon on selection or price, so folks like me whose book-buying tastes are, um, let’s go with ‘idiosyncratic,’ flock to Amazon. For the individual book-buyer, this is an unalloyed good. Overall, though, it reduces the number of providers of books. I don’t much mind if a Waldenbooks goes to the great mall in the sky, but the really interesting, quirky stores bring something to the table.

So this modern-jazz-loving, reverse-music-snob, former-Greenpeace, lover-of-independent-media will spend the better parts of two days burning fossil fuel, listening to themes from cartoons beamed down from a conglomerate in outer space. The things we do for love…