Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The gated community of FM radio

For some years, I had car radio Button 1 set to NPR and Button 2 to the local oldies station. For those who have somehow missed the definition, “oldies” are those songs that range from 50’s music such as “Rock Around the Clock” to late-60’s offerings รก la “Green Tambourine,” with a heavy side order of the Beatles. Happy music. Often a little silly. Often a lot silly, really. I’d listen to the oldies in the morning, partly because the station offered frequent traffic reports and partly because radio stations have become so specialized and compartmentalized that there was no station that met my slightly eclectic, Britney-free taste. So I defaulted to the music of my childhood.

For years, maybe a decade, I’d flitted between these two stations in the morning, one good for my mind and the other good for my mood.

Then the day after Christmas last year, Button 2 changed format, name, and call letters.

Now it plays “classic hits” (their term, not mine) – Eagles, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, one James Taylor song (“You’ve Got a Friend”), but also Supertramp, Queen, The Doors, Dire Straits, Jackson Browne, late Beatles and Paul McC sans Beatles, and for reasons that defy logic, Manfred Mann’s version of “Blinded by the Light” repeatedly. You get the general idea. Or not.

It took me a while.

Most of us experience music from our past as an aural time machine. Play Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” and I am in another place, on another plane, having a physical reaction that would, in part, be indelicate to discuss here. I hadn’t heard a lot of the music on the “new” station for quite some time and was both enjoying it enormously and feeling guilty because my morning DJs of more than a decade had suddenly gone unemployed.

One evening driving home, listening to my new Button 2, I indulged in a little mental programming of music I hadn’t heard in quite some time that would fit nicely with the new format. Yeah, they should also play “Jack & Diane” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and…

The moment right after the Stevie Wonder moment came the revelation that Button 2 is a segregated radio station.

No blacks allowed.

Back in the day when I first heard the songs of the aforementioned 70’s/80’s artists, they were played on stations alongside the music of Mr. Wonder, the Commodores. The Temptations. Smokey Robinson. Prince. 'Retha Franklin.

Surely I was wrong. Would someone really program a classic 70’s/80’s station – but whites only?

As I finished the ride home that night, I mulled over the songs I’d heard over the past weeks, searching for even the slightest evidence of a little soul. Nothing. The songs that continued to play as I traveled continued the theme: John Mellencamp, Jim Croce, Electric Light Orchestra. (Maybe somewhere within some of the groups getting airtime was a black member or two, but I guarantee you these are not artists known to be black.) Once home, I found the station’s website and “last played songs” list. More of the same: mostly male and all very, very white.

Might I mention here that I, too, am very, very white? But I’ve also been very, very enriched over the years by the work of black artists in many mediums – music, movies, literature. Life without Stevie Wonder would have been colorless indeed, pun respectfully intended.

I still push that Button 2 occasionally, but not as often as I did when the station and I first met. It makes me feel a little slimy to do so. Radio stations in the 21st century are owned by corporations with huge marketing research resources. They (allegedly) know what people want. (And my station is owned by a conglomerate, so I’m guessing that it has clones all over the country.) Someone must want Whites Only music. A lot of someones must want this.

Or do they?

It took me two months to notice that my music was bleached clean. I wonder if the station’s other listeners have noticed?

Yes, I know that other stations play primarily black music or white music. In those cases, however, genre drives the programming decisions. Some stations play hip-hop; some old school. And country’s white all day long and so be it.

In the case of “my” station, however, that just doesn’t fly. Tell me why the Commodores’ “Brickhouse” and Billy Joel’s “Big Shot” don’t belong on the same playlist? Why Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” and not Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”?

One chilling effect of this programming is economic: there are royalties to be had when a radio station plays a song. And when stations play only white music, only white artists make money.

I hope that wasn’t the plan.


Disgruntled Car Salesman said...

I don't have a problem with black musicians, and often listen to their music. However, classic rock and "Motown" as it were called are two very different genres of music. Thats why there is a classic rock station and a motown station, both in my town and I'm sure in your town. Nice blog, just passing through.

On another note, my brother and his girlfriend just moved to Florida in February. She, also named Britney, goes by Bitty. Or, as I call her, Itty Bitty. Enter the twilight zone....

Bitty said...

Thanks for the kind words, disgruntled car salesman (my son has been one of those himself).

I'm with you on the definition, but this station really can't be labeled classic ROCK. We have a station devoted just to that: Boston, Journey, Van Halen, etc. This one plays lots o' music more on the pop side in addition to the rock: Crosby, Stills, and Nash's sweet ballads, Seals & Crofts, that song "Brandy" by the Looking Glass. As I said, I can hear no genre difference between "Summer Breeze" and "Sunshine of My Life."

They don't play many women, either. I'm going to start listening closer, but I'm just not sure if I've ever heard Pat Benatar or Blondie. The one woman I'm certain of is Stevie Nicks...and she has a guy's name.

Bitty said...

Rereading my original post in light of DCS's comments, I can see that I'll need to make some revisions in my examples. I didn't give strong examples of the pop side of this station's playlist. It's a semi-eclectic station, unless of course you want to hear the 70's/80's top 40 hits (very "mainstream" hits) of the black artists.

Waveflux said...

Radio is driven entirely by demographics. It seems as though it's not listeners the stations think of so much as markets, targets for advertising. I know that's the way the world works, but it precludes any kind of variety and dictates a fairly narrow offering. appcompat. Very few stations don't engage in that kind of "narrowcasting."

For some reason, I'm reminded of my days working at a small indy bookstore. The politics of shelving would come up now and again. We'd always put a small sampling of, say, Toni Morrison in the regular fiction section because she was a big enough literary name to appeal to whites as well as blacks. But other black authors, just as literary but not so well known, were shelved only in the black lit section, because otherwise no one would know where to look for them. I can't say exactly why that story comes to mind now, but there it is.

I guess I shouldn't complain, as I've never been much of a music guy.

Waveflux said...

That word "appcompat" doesn't belong in my earlier comment. It was left over in the clipboard from an earlier Google search. Weird.

Bitty said...

I thought "appcompat" was there to see if we were paying attention.

Deep down I know about the demographics. I guess I just don't want to believe that marketers think their targets would be driven away by a little "My Cherie Amour." What I REALLY don't want to believe is that I live in the same place with listeners who think that way. Clearly where I live, however, is in Denial.

I hope to quit ranting about this in a few days, but it's been eating at me for some time. I was hoping that the blog would be a place to purge it, not make it fester up.

It's not working.