Radio Markets and Discontent

Personal gripe time.  This is one of those instances where I believe The Market is a hydrocephalic moron and people who put their undying faith in get what they deserve.

Shortly after the 4th of July just past, a St. Louis radio station changed hands.  KFUO 99.1 FM had, for sixty-plus years, been our commercial classical station.  Before the first Gulf War, our local NPR affiliate, KWMU, was largely a classical music broadcaster, but after that first foray into Mid east adventurism they became pretty much All Talk All Day.  Mind you, I like some of what they offer—Fresh Air, Talk of the Nation, Diane Rheem—but I am a lover of music.  My youth, in regards to radio, was all about music.  I cannot tolerate most of Talk Radio, especially the right wing stuff, but I’m not overly fond of the left wing blatherings, either.  Give me a good solid news show twice a day and then fill the airwaves with music.

This has become a subject of nostalgia for me, because for the most part the music scene on radio has devolved into mind-numbing banality and repetition.  Catering to The Market has the net result of leavening out at the lowest common denominator, so instead of fascinating, new, or just first-rate music, we get the cuts that will appeal to the greatest number of whatever demographic a given station thinks it’s playing to.

After KWMU went All Talk, little by little I began listening to KFUO.  They did not do as good a job, overall, as KWMU—I am a firm believer in airing complete works, so when I am offered A Movement of a symphony or what have you I am turned off; I want the whole damn thing or don’t bother (this is also true of other genres as well: I once got into a shouting match with a DJ over his insistence of playing the three-minute version of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer track that, in its fullness, ran to twelve minutes, and he demanded to know who wanted to listen to all that synthesizer soloing, to which I replied “people who like ELP, you moron!”  Needless to say, I lost that one, but I resent the whole assumption that the attention span of people will never exceed five minutes—if you assume that and that’s all you give them, you train them to have short attention spans)—but it was classical music, and I find myself, aging that I am, more and more indulging in that genre (if genre it is) out of sheer boredom and impatience with most other forms.  At least, on the radio.

So KFUO became my car station.  (At home I listen to albums.  I would eliminate DJs and commercials if I could.  Playing my own discs, I can.)

Due to the demands of The Market, the impatience of shareholders, etc etc, management at KFUO—the Lutheran Church, basically—sold the station.  It is now Joy 99, playing contemporary Christian pop…stuff.

I’ve attempted to listen to some of it, but I find it unremittingly boring.  And I am pissed.  Where can I now go on the radio to get classical music?  Well, KWMU has taken advantage of the new high definition broadcast tech to split itself into multiple channels and has one dedicated to classical music.  But I can’t get that in the car.  Can’t get it at home on my stereo, either, unless I buy new equipment, which is a source of resentment as well.  We live in an age where if one does not have the latest, most up-to-date Thingie, at a cost of X hundred dollars per widget, one cannot partake of the goodies available—and the media changes often enough that buying new Thingies is now every couple, three years.

Pardon my expression—Fuck That!  This is the Microsoft model taken to extremes.  It is a form of class division, based on tech-savvy and money.  You don’t have to pass laws to keep the so-called Unwashed out of the Club, you just have to make sure they can’t afford the newest Thingie.

Ahem.  Excuse me, that was paranoid of me.  I have no reason to believe this is intentional.  This is The Market, in all its lobotomized asininity.

Back for a moment to the new KFUO.  It is boring.  (I am beginning to recognize a pattern.  Christian pop sounds somewhat-to-mainly Country.  The southern lilt to the vocals, the excessively forced emotional warbling, twisting notes through laryngeal gymnastics for no reason other than to make use of a single chord for a few moments longer.  Never mind the lyrics—I didn’t have a problem with groups like Creed, at least not initially: the music was interesting, the lyrics showed a modicum of ingenuity—just the American Idol approach to hyped emotionalism as substitute for actual content.  But I really cannot abide dull music.  Even when, initially, this stuff sounds like they’re getting down with some passion, it’s really just arrangement and playing with the compression.  The simplest chords, the over-reliance on melody—almost always in major keys—and the de-emphasizing of anything that might distract from the primary message of the lyric content.  Now, KFUO, having been a Lutheran station, played a great deal of sacred music.  Most of which was GLORIOUS.  Beautiful, sonorous, majestic, interesting!  Composed by musicians who saw no reason to muffle their strengths, but put what they had into such compositions because the music itself was a form of worship, an offering to what they believed, honest and unhampered passion.  Modern Christian rock seems to do everything it can to apologize for being rock.  Of course, there’s a reason for this, since a good deal of what these folks espouse is a typical American attitude that sensuality is an enemy to faith, and let’s face it, rock is all about sensuality.  So, too, is jazz, perhaps even more so, which may be why one hears almost no Christian jazz.)  Boring is inexcusable, I don’t care what cause it is in the name of.

Somehow some one or more “consultant” companies told the new owners that this will attract a larger market share than what KFUO had been doing.  For all I know, they’re right.  I have little faith in the taste of the masses, as a mass.  Most of the people I have ever known as casual acquaintances have exhibited appalling taste in the arts.  You have to be aware to be sensitive to nuance, to passion, to genuine merit, and it seems that most people move through life barely conscious of their surroundings.

(I once had the most frustrating interchange with a woman at a party who kept complaining that everything I was putting on the stereo was “depressing.”  Her word.  Depressing.  What was I playing?  Flim and the BBs, Grover Washington, McCoy Tyner, things like that.  I couldn’t figure it out until she demanded, somewhat drunkenly,”Where’s the singing?”  Unless there was singing, it was depressing.  Of course, by singing she didn’t mean opera, she meant anything she could sing along to.  This was more music as sport than art.)

So after a couple of weeks of listening the all this strained pseudo-music sung by earnest C & W types against the most singularly undifferentiated backgrounds, I am officially peeved.    I’d like my classical music back, please.  I don’t care about demographics.  There are dozens of other stations where one can hear similarly banal  excrescence, albeit possibly without the juvenile nonsense worship lyrics.  KFUO served an audience that is now not served at all, and I can’t help wondering if this is at least partly propagandistic.  That this is as much an effort to force a single voice onto the airwaves, driving out the specialist, minority voices, as it is to maximize returns on investment.

Of course, that would be a bit paranoid, wouldn’t it?

Except that over forty years of listening to radio I can’t help but notice that every instance of a station or a show that reached a bit higher, took a chance on quality, played the unexpected or occasionally controversial—all those stations were, one by one, taken over and dragged back down into the stew pot of “popular taste” at expense of anything genuinely challenging or interesting.  Regardless of genre.  Mediocrity is the hallmark of the largest market share.

Have a good weekend.

Published by Mark Tiedemann

5 comments on “Radio Markets and Discontent”

  1. Up here in Minneapolis, we lost our second public classical radio station a few years ago (it was actually run out of St. Olaf college down in Northfield; I grew up in Northfield). They sold it to Minnesota Public Radio, who turned it into “The Current”, a music station playing non-classical for the NPR listener. I have no idea what genre name to attach, possibly there isn’t one. I even listen to it sometimes (my tastes are small and sort-of concentrated around British Isles folk and modern incarnations, so it’s not a wonderful match for me).

    I probably listened to it more as a classical station, but given that they had two classical stations in the market it makes sense that they might do better as a “modern music” station.

    Sympathies on not having what you want to listen to in the car, anyway! I listen to the news station when I’m in the car alone; about the only mass-media news I get.

  2. Speaking from experience, you can’t blame the consultants. I learned about a decade ago that radio consultants don’t make their money from offering solutions, no matter how bad they may be. They make their money by rationalizing why the station owners’ idiotic ideas are sane and lucid. This way, when the station manager makes a particularly boneheaded decision, such as changing formats or firing the only deejay at a station that can attract an audience in favor of the manager’s son, the manager can blame the consultant for the decision. “It’s not my fault that the ratings fell like a stone after we cut back the playlist by three-quarters, ended a popular late-night lineup, and hired that anacephalic Glenn Beck wannabe to do the morning show. The consultants told us to do it!”

    That said, I couldn’t agree with you more. I always find it interesting in standard terrestrial radio that the first resort when a station’s ratings drop below an acceptable level is to start advertising “More music in the mornings!” If this is such a surefire way to make listeners happy and amp up the ratings, then who do so many station managers feel compelled to “fix” that with a format that consists of 20 minutes of ads, two songs, and a half-hour of inane chatter every hour?

  3. There are cheaper HD gadgets, if audioplilia is not your obsession. Like the Insignia NS-HD01 HD Radio Portable Player for about $30. Plug it into an FM transmitter (about $20) if you want to shunt the HD via FM to your existing system. I plug such a transmitter into my MP3 player (bought for $9 about 5 years ago) to hear my home collection in the car.
    I haven’t tried HD radio, yet. But when I finally replace my decrepit 1970’s tuner/amp with one that has a working phono input, it’ll have HD.

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