S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 22 November 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
Tuning Out

 

[on My trip to Puerto Vallarta...]

Driving across America with the

radio on is like being trapped

in an endless, circular mall.

Wherever you go, the playlists

are the same, the promos use the

same voices, and the DJs sound

identical — no regional

accents, just that bizarre

plastered-smile voice native to

anchormen, dentists, and Raffi.

It's all packaged in

prefabricated formats with

copycat nicknames: The Frog

(croakin' country), Alice (who

the fuck is Alice?), The Edge

(taking time off from the

grueling Zoo TV tour, we guess).

Commercial radio has always had

a not-so-secret uniform fetish,

but now just about every stretch

of bandwidth from Butte to

Orlando is as identical as a

stretch of mall from Waldenbooks

to The Limited, and there are

more Morning Zoos than Spencer

Gifts. What happened?

 

What happened was the 1996

Telecommunications Act. The

decade's most gruesome

deregulation legislation was

signed into law on 8 February

1996 by President Clinton, still

delirious from a mind-blowing

staff meeting four days earlier.

Among other things, the act

dissolved national radio

ownership caps and let

corporations own up to eight

stations in large cities. More

or less instantly, radio groups'

cannibalistic frenzy turned the

waters red. Just this year, two

monstrous radio groups,

Chancellor and Capstar, merged

to become AMFM, while another

big conglomerate, Clear Channel,

bought yet another vast group,

Jacor. (Chancellor had

previously engulfed, merged

with, or lapped up Evergreen

Media Corporation, Primedia

Broadcast Group Inc., various TV

and billboard companies, and

Casey Kasem's American Top 40.)

Then after a little more pro

forma come-here-often?, Clear

Channel merged with AMFM in a

US$56 billion deal. The new

company, still called Clear

Channel, will own 830 stations

in 187 US cites, including 47 of

the top 50 markets — and

that's after the Feds make the

company ditch about 125 stations to

meet local limits. That's more than

four stations per city, on

average. How many stations can

you even pick up on your car

radio?

 

[I drank...]

As with all hookups among

giants, the ultimate goal is to

coax the big swinging dicks of

Wall Street into a ménage

à trois by reducing

redundancies and improving the

bottom line. So among other

cash-saving moves, these monster

radio groups are booting out

single-station program directors

in favor of group programmers,

who control multiple formats in

multiple cities, generate their

playlists with the help of

computers, and spam them out all

over the country. Since every

cookie-cutter format has a

predetermined sound anyway, why

bother involving the locals? And

since all the DJs sound the same

anyway, why not substitute

satellite programming for

graveyard shifts? Drop in a few

local weather and traffic

reports, and no one's the wiser.

 

The conglomerates have worked in

a few innovations, like AMFM's

prized Jammin' Oldies format,

the brainchild of Bob Visotcky,

newly crowned cluster vice

president for the Los Angeles

region. Visotcky, who earned the

nickname Killer V for his

expulsive management style at

Denver's AMFM cluster, first

concocted the format for LA's

KCMG-FM in November of 1998.

Its cheerful blend of "evergreen

hit music" from the likes of Aretha

Franklin, the Temptations, Barry

White, Marvin Gaye, Prince, and

Gloria Gaynor was aimed squarely

at the bulging wallets and

overpriced minivan stereo units

of the 25 to 54 demographic, and it

scored: The station shot up from

No. 28 to No. 2 in LA's

Arbitron ratings. AMFM abruptly

made a dozen more of its

stations Oldies Jammers, from

New York to Chicago to Austin to

Albany.

 

It's not the actual Jammin'

Oldies music that disturbs us;

Lord knows, if not for the

seductive power of Barry White's

voice, we'd be hunting Chinatown

for the right pair of "healthy

ball." But Jammin' Oldies'

quick rise to darling status

among AMFM stations has come

at a price; it often displaced

other well-entrenched formats

(and station personnel) in the

process. Not that there are even

human DJs at many stations any

more, but we need to have our

fantasies.

 

[Laid in the sun...]

In retrospect, classic Top 40

radio seems like a paved-over

oasis of creativity and variety,

despite its stiflingly narrow

playlists and occasional Mr.

Mister ballads. Casey Kasem's

weekly countdowns of the '70s

and '80s were fairly spirited

collections of pop, soul, and

country hits, all genially

rubbing shoulders as they kept

reaching for the stars.

Nowadays, consultants have

convinced radio groups to split

as many demographic hairs as

possible when developing

formats: There's rhythmic Top

40, adult Top 40, adult

contemporary, hot adult

contemporary, adult R&B, young

R&B, adult album alternative,

alternative rock, '80s

alternative rock, X-treme

alternative rock, classic rock,

classic country, young country,

Cat country, Giuliani country

(OK, we made that one up, but

remember: we made it up first).

Few stations, if any, play the

40 most popular songs in the

country any more; many proudly

advertise that they're 100

percent rap free, in case you

have an allergy to, you know,

those people. As for Kasem, he's

now hosting a declawed Top 40

countdown and two flavors of

hairsplitting Top 20 shows,

Adult Contemporary and Hot Adult

Contemporary, as well as

complaining about up-tempo

records.

 

Meanwhile, dozens of grassroots

groups have been lobbying the

Federal Communications

Commission to license

community-based low-power radio

stations; these would allow

organizations that actually

aren't planning IPOs to have

their say on the airwaves,

albeit at wattages that wouldn't

power Britney's blow-dryer. The

FCC is seriously contemplating

it, partly because chairman Bill

Kennard harbors fond memories of

his radical college-radio days

at Stanford. But the concept is

drawing static from the National

Association of Broadcasters,

which claims that low-power

radio will cause more chaos than

Orson Welles' Devil's Night

prank. Some listeners will only

be able to hear "I Want It That

Way" on three or four stations

at a time, and besides, radio

has enough diversity already.

This from an organization that

has twice named Rush Limbaugh

radio personality of the year.

And poor Kennard is getting it

from both sides; some pirate

broadcasters, distressed at FCC

closures of their stations, are

taking a poll on what punishment

should be doled out to him. The

current favorite is acid enema.

Not like that burning sensation

is unfamiliar to anyone who's

endured more than a few minutes

of a self-congratulating, stoned

pirate radio DJ.

 

[and swam with dolphins. <phil@wired.com>]

So what are the alternatives?

Well, there's always Web radio,

if you don't mind crashing your

modem every 20 minutes and

spending even more time within

two feet of your EMF-emitting

screen. And two new companies

XM and CD Radio

will soon be happy to send

satellite radio service directly

into your car stereo (OK, not

your car stereo, one of their

car stereos). For 10 bucks a

month, each will beam you dozens

of stations in innovative

formats like Adult Urban

Contemporary, NAC Jazz, and

Alternative Rock II. In other

words, you can pay to get more

of what's on the airwaves

already, except without the

local flavor provided by your

neighborhood Saturn dealer. Alan

Freed had a vision, but he got

it wrong: In the ultimate form

of payola, the money goes the

other way.

 
courtesy of Anne Tenna