Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Radio is still kicking

Never visit The Browser if you're supposed to be doing something else. What was supposed to be a ten-second check for new articles turned into an hour of reading the first one that caught my eye: an overview of contemporary public radio news/talk offerings in the New York Review of Books.

The Browser's summary blurb is a trifle misleading: it promises someone asking (and presumably answering) the question, "Why don't we discuss radio content the way we discuss books and TV?" It could be that the anonymous collator who decided to list this piece was misled by its opening sentence: "Radio receives little critical attention." In fact, Bill McKibben's piece is specifically about the world of public radio, profiling several respected shows in that realm that aren't nearly as well known as, say, All Things Considered.

I'd like to add that it isn't just news and talk that is worth listening to on the non-commercial airwaves. While commercial music radio has been creatively dead since, oh, 1975, non-commercial radio stations have been programming interesting, sometimes challenging, generally obscure genres and artists for decades. The zenith of college radio's influence (this music is most often heard on current or former college radio stations) was perhaps the 1980s and early 1990s, when artist after artist crossed over from those commercial-free airwaves into the public consciousness, turning rock and pop on its ear. The music continues today, albeit at a much less noticeable level as far as the general public is concerned.

The key to non-commercial music stations' influence and continued relevance (and they are very much still relevant) is the freedom of their mostly unpaid DJs. These people volunteer their time and often their money to put together weekly shows just for the love of the music, and that love shines through in the care with which they construct those shows. The best of them mix old favorites, obscure and not, with new releases. It's a way of enticing people to listen to those new releases, embedding them within songs the audience has heard before.

Do you know what's wrong with substituting your iPod in "shuffle" mode for the radio? You won't be exposed to anything new. And while some of you might be happy recycling the same ten, twenty, one hundred, or even five hundred albums (or even, heaven forbid, songs), that just won't work for most of us.

What about the Internet? A number of sites offer up samples of what's new and what's good (in someone's eyes, anyway), and some of them try to guess at what you'll like by breaking every song into discrete characteristics and matching on those characteristics to point you at music you haven't yet heard. None of that, though, matches the skill that a live human brain steeped in music can bring to the party.

A really good radio DJ may plan out sets in advance or may rely entirely on seat-of-the-pants inspiration, but he or she always has the flow of the set in mind. One song might follow another because they have similar arrangements, or because one ends with a note in the same key as the other starts with, or they're roughly the same genre, or the lyrical content is similar, or one ends and the other begins with cymbal crashes, or they have identical beats (or can be coerced that way), or ... you get the idea. Something about the current song triggers the next one in the DJ's mind. Software can't match it. It's magical. And it leads to magical results on the radio. Well, on non-commercial radio stations, which are the only places a radio DJ has this kind of freedom.

Let yourself be surprised, and maybe pleased, by what those who have a passion for music can bring you on the non-commercial airwaves.

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