Monday, May 15, 2017
The WASP Radio Hour....
FM radio, like AM before it, has died a slow death - replaced by new media such as streaming on smart phones.
When I was a kid, we had AM radio. Cars came with AM radios, and FM was an exotic thing that only rich people had. There were few FM stations, too - mostly classical stations that took advantage of the lack of static to play Mozart or Bach, where silences are more noticeable in the music.
But over time, AM died, and died hard. Before long, it became a vast wasteland of angry right-wing talk radio shows, Jesus channels, Spanish-speaking stations, and bad top-40 radio. Since we all had FM radios, no one gave a damn about AM anymore, and the static and buzzing seemed painful to our newly trained FM ears.
In the beginning of modern FM, it was an amazing time. In the mid-to-late 1970's, every city had at least one FM rock station, with laid-back stoner DJ's, often operating out of some old house somewhere. The sponsors were oddball - the local head shop and maybe the waterbed store. Big media was still fixated on Top-40 AM radio stations with their loud fast-talking jocks.
But that changed, too, with time. Networks bought up the FM stations and payola and play-lists became the norm. The DJ's became more loud and aggressive and talky. The "morning drive-time" became the big money-maker, where the "Morning Zoo Crew" or some such nonsense would tell off-color jokes between ads. Music went away, and Howard Stern was born.
There were still a few refuges left on the dial - places where you could have a respite from the barrage of loud DJs, who talked over the first and last parts of every song, as well as the blaring ads that were double the volume of the programming. Like the cable companies, the FM networks set about to make their product as toxic as possible, hoping people would keep listening out of sheer habit. Some still do.
Public Radio was one of those last refuges. Most were classical and jazz stations, with a local DJ playing the records before formally announcing the titles and what labels they were on. Hourly news was read from the wire services. It was a quiet band of the radio.
This too, changed over time. More and more programming became canned, and content providers like NPR and PRI started to take over more and more airtime - to the point today where many people think that NPR is public radio, and not merely a content provider that local stations pay (and pay a lot to) in order to get canned content. Goodbye to that local Jazz DJ - we miss you Masani! Goodbye to the staid and laid-back classical DJ - hello to gushing Fred Child and his top-40 classical countdown (who said Dick Clark was dead?).
But even Fred Child is under attack - from the monster that is Public talk radio. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Talk Radio, that is. Public radio has devolved into a whites-only, upper-class liberal chat-box, almost exclusively comprising canned programs from content providers. It has become a de-facto radio network, making a few people "stars" while the rest are relegated to watching dials and pushing buttons and putting the network feed to the local transmitters. It is no longer local, it is no longer public. It is a money-making machine, making millions for a few, and subsidized by the Federal Government.
And it is no longer commercial-free. The ads - and they are ads - are all for big corporations or foundations linked to big corporations. Please don't try to convince me that an ad for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation isn't really an ad for Microsoft. If they were really so altruistic, wouldn't the Gates' forego the announcement and just give the money? Other ads are less savory. Angie's List? The Lemelson Foundation? The ads are little better than those in the back of Smithsonian Magazine - another government-subsidized entity.
But it is the content that really turns me off. We've stopped listening to the news on the radio, particularly since we can simply read it on the smart phones. The programs are all talk, and all junk, and all white and wasp-y. On a recent program, a wealthy "retired" couple relates how they have been "traveling the world, learning and laughing" (sorry, I just threw up in my mouth a little just then) for "1079 days now!" (which sounds a lot cooler than merely three years). The host, Rick Steves, fawns all over them, and they tell how they live in AirBnB places - and claim it is cheaper than living at home! I sincerely doubt that. It all sounds like an ad for AirBnB, quite frankly, and really, I found nothing in in the program really enlightening or interesting, other than an opportunity to identify with upper-class waspishness. The only reason I heard it, was I was traveling in the truck, putting out yard-sale signs, and I didn't bring the phone to hear Pandora.
Another snippet of programming was another one of these "Radio Lab" kind of programs where they play beeps and boops and try to tell you compelling stories. I couldn't really follow the story too well, something about some well-off teen boys wearing Sketchers, who were misunderstood by their peers. Something about one being named TJ but all his friends called him DJ. I just didn't get it. After the third garage-sale sign, came on a program with some female teen whining about how hard life was in suburban high-school hell. I found it hard to be engaged, when you know how hard the rest of the world really has it.
This just mystified me. I mean, the rest of the programming is drivel as well - but this new stuff is even worse. Garrison Keillor, for example, has been on far too long (30 years plus!) doing the same dull, boring bits again and again. And again, it is upper-middle-class WASPs who listen to this drivel, thinking it is charming. But I doubt anyone believes Keillor has a good singing voice - he sounds like a Walrus in heat. I really wish he would stop - and stop trying to do duets with singing guests who really have great voices that need to be heard.
Click and Clack? They talk about broken Volvos belonging to clueless liberal yuppies, inbetween funny stories and "puzzlers". And speaking of puzzles, they have Will Short on the weekend news program asking us to "Name a city with six letters, the first and the last letter, if combined, are the initials for the State the city is in" or some such rot. Again, the audience for this is.... liberal wealthy white folks. It is hardly "public" and it serves a demographic that, quite frankly, is quite well-off.
So what's the point of this? I dunno, other than I get the feeling that whoever they are programming to, increasingly it isn't me, nor is it even more than a tiny slice of the demographics of the United States. I'm not saying they need to have a program devoted to hog-calling competitions (and not as irony, either) or the rap-music hour, only that it seems odd that we have a "Public" radio network today that is very narrowly tailored to a very specific demographic, while at the same time, being subsidized by the government. And the narrow demographic it is tailored to is, well, the one least needing a government handout.
It is, however, the demographic that most strongly believes that the government should provide and pay for everything.
It also strikes me that radio in its entirely is dead. There is nothing on AM but static and nothing on FM but bad modern country music, Jesus, Jesus, and more Jesus (who apparently wants your money), bad rock-and-roll oldies, new Top-40 which consists of warbling singers who won reality-show singing contests, and of course public radio with its snarky announcers with bizarre made-up names and speech impediments.
It really is getting to the point where, well, you just don't use the radio anymore, any more than modern people use the telephone (as a device to talk to people with). Radio is dead - I am surprised they even bother putting them in cars anymore. Cassette decks went away in the 1990's (although BMW kept them well into the 2000's!). CD players are pretty much obsolete and not offered in many cars today. Could radio be next? Today's consumers get their media from the smartphone, so a smartphone interface is far more valuable that "radio" and it really is a waste of dashboard real estate to even have one button, even on a screen, devoted to radio listening.
And I think that if "Public Radio" is going to devolve into a national network of NPR and PRI canned programming, designed for a very narrow target audience and is sponsored by huge corporations and conglomerates - as well as some pretty seedy advertisers - that maybe it doesn't need the trivial government subsidies it is getting.
Or put another way, if you are going to subsidize "public" radio, then logically you should be subsidizing Jesus radio, "The New Country Wolf FM", Radio Latina, "Classic Rock 95", "Angry Talk 102" and the R&B Rap channel. Because these stations also serve narrow demographics, have advertisements, and make millions of dollars for a select few individuals.
Or maybe, just maybe, public radio should be given back to the people it serves? I doubt that will ever happen!