Opinion: What’s Wrong with the Radio?

Elvis Costello in 1978

“And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools / Trying to anesthetize the way that you feel / Radio is a sound salvation, radio is cleaning up the nation / They say you better listen to the voice of reason / But they don’t give you any choice, ’cause they think that it’s treason.”

— “Radio, Radio,” Elvis Costello

Do you hate rock music? If your answer is yes, maybe you’re responding less to what the genre produces than to what your radio does and doesn’t deliver.

I love rock music, but in my current hometown of Phoenix (and many other cities), I hate rock radio. Most of the announcers are loud and puerile and seem to know little about the records they play beyond title and artist—if that. More important, those records reflect a tiny and largely inane portion of what rock has to offer; and playlists have become so rigid and brief that, when a good song does get aired, it receives so much exposure that I wind up hating it. Even oldies are put on “heavy rotation,” which means that a song I once loved but haven’t heard in 10 years can suddenly be played enough to make me detest it.

I understand that radio programmers are motivated by ratings—in other words, dollars. But don’t tell me that radio simply delivers what people want to hear. For one thing, the brevity of playlists, a narrow definition of “acceptable” music, and a general take-no-chances attitude have conspired to minimize or eliminate exposure to lots of extremely popular music, including such recent million-selling LPs as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and the Clash’s Combat Rock.

Perhaps a better retort to those who say that radio delivers what sells is that radio shapes tastes as well as mirrors them. You can’t like what you’ve never heard, and how often on Phoenix radio have you heard, for example, Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask, Grand Master Flash’s “The Message,” or Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights? Chances are, you haven’t even heard of them, much less heard them, yet they all rank among the 11 best albums and singles of 1982, according to a recent Rolling Stone survey of 22 of the nation’s top popular-music critics.

Would audiences really respond to something different? Just look at how quickly little KSTM-FM in Apache Junction (of all places) has grabbed a share of the rock market with programming that, while far from spectacular, is clearly more interesting and adventurous than what any of the competition delivers. Look how a fan club burgeoned for Jonathon Brandmeier, who (in my view, at least) offered little but a change of pace and a personality that didn’t originate in a cookie cutter. And look at MTV, cable television’s big success story, which regularly embraces the new and different artists you don’t hear on the radio—and which has found that, given the exposure, those artists can sell records. Only when sales become too big to ignore does radio jump on the bandwagon—and then only sometimes.

I love radio’s potential almost as much as I love rock music, which is why I’m so saddened by the state of the medium here and in many other cities. I grew up in New York, where WNEW-FM played a wide range of material and employed personalities like Vince Scelsa and Jonathan Schwartz—people who cared about the music and the medium and who treated the listener like an intelligent human being. Then there was the audience-supported WBAI-FM, which took the additional bold step of suspecting that listeners should not be compartmentalized, that the very same people might actually like rock, folk, country, blues, and, yes, classical, and want to hear a bit of each on one station.

Alas, even in New York, those days of adventure seem to be fading as more and more radio stations concentrate on airing the handful of songs that management knows will be sufficiently likable—or at least sufficiently inoffensive—to keep their carefully profiled audiences from turning the dial. Inevitably, perhaps, playlists will shrink even further, till the radio delivers only a few “guaranteed” winners over and over. Inevitably too, perhaps, FM, which has replaced the slow-to-change AM in the hearts of rock fans, will itself be eclipsed by another music source—the cassette deck, which more and more of us will use to approximate the programming that radio refuses to deliver.

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