We Can Control the Medium: Radio’s Dying Gasps

“We can control the medium/ We can control the context of presentation…” – T. Gabel

Radio has been dying a slow death for the past decade, losing ad revenue to companies who have increased their ad spending online. I don’t claim to be an expert on the intricacies of radio but I knew enough in college that getting a degree in broadcasting was a poor choice and quickly switched my emphasis to something more scalable (at least that’s what I told myself at the time). I’ve always held contempt for the radio system. Pay to play payola was and has been rampant for decades even though its not really talked about much now. Besides, public airwaves sold to private companies to sell products to consumers seemed like a blatantly flawed system in any context. The sad part about radios decline is the only people that don’t seem to recognize the change in the minds of consumers is people that work for the radio stations, or at least the station owners—cigar smoking, baby-seal-cowboy-boots on a desk made out of elephant tusks grinning maniacally while sipping a tumbler of chilled baby’s blood with a ‘What? Me Worry’ approach to business. You get the point.

My years spent as a music consumer helped me understand how terrible radio is—or at least that time spent skimming channels for interesting content gave me some perspective once I had determined that I despised the ‘format’ before identifying what that ‘format’ was and is. I liked morning shows. They break up the monotony of song repetition. Program directors of local radio shows have made the single a commondity. They are the assholes known as tastemakers. They are the ones making or breaking artists. They’ve helped perpetuate the culture of mediocrity by playing a song so many times consumers are compelled to plug their ears while the stations mine the tune until the little flicker of brilliance in the song has dulled.

Everyone just tunes out. I didn’t discover half the music I listen to by waiting by the radio for a ‘new’ song from a ‘new’ band. Youth will find a way and now that youth has the internet, what is the point of listening to the radio?

That kind of artifice is evidenced in every contrived little between song BS sesh of the ‘disc jockey.’ These guys used to be inspired lovers of music. True aficionados of sound. The original ‘audiophile’ who, with just the right amount of knowledge and charisma could inspire a listener to expand his or her horizons. That was way before my time. Corporate greed has always help perpetuate this system of diminishing returns but until the FCC allowed companies to buy multiple stations in local markets there was a semblance of diversity. Even though that diversity has been suspect. As a result, music has become predictable, less dangerous and more disposable. Why would I buy a song I know they’re going to play 3 more times in the next hour sandwiched between some terrible Seether song and a lame Pearl Jam track from the fucking Ten record?

Then there is the question of relevancy. San Diego’s 94.9 touts itself as a truly independent station. They are probably the best commercial radio station I’ve heard, though I’d still prefer a dentists drill to the radio. They have beaten out Rock 105 AND 91X in San Diego. Most of the songs they play are surprising to hear on commercial radio. Ten years ago I never would have heard “Holiday in Cambodia” on a station other than one broadcast from a college campus. And they’ve won the holiday concert war with the best line-up. Their ‘Holiday Hootenanny’ has Queens of the Stone Age headlining and support from some local hero’s like Pinback and Louis XIV.

I was a witness to the train wreck that was 91X’s Nightmare Before Xmas concert. The station had to have given away hundreds of tickets just to fill SDSU’s Cox Arena ‘pit’ area. You know the ‘pit’ area where you have to pay extra money to STAND. What had initially been planned as a two day festival event with dozens of bands turned into a handful of mid-level bands playing to what I estimated to be a thousand or 1700 people (who knows what the actual count was, I bet 91X won’t tell) Bad Religion, Against Me!, and late 90’s nu-metal band, Seether were the ‘big’ bands of this little holiday party. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some AM! and some BR but can either of those bands pack an arena? Probably not. How about Angels and Airwaves? You would think they could in their own hometown but they didn’t. It was depressing. And of course, between bands and on the promenade fans are exposed to advertisers and you don’t even have the option of ‘changing the station.’

Another local band, The Transit War opened the show. They were great. Those boys have come a long way. But the music isn’t what is in question here. It’s the apparent lack of communication between the station and its constituents, i.e. the listener—not the companies that buy ads. How often do they actually play Bad Religion on the radio or when can you hear The Transit War short of staying up until 1am on Monday morning for the Loudspeaker show? Seeing the military there actively recruiting young male concert goers made me want to vomit and then I dry heaved when I saw some poor schmuck walking around taking pictures with kids in a Geico the Gecko costume.

Against Me’s Tom Gabel lambasted the event from the stage, telling people not to buy anything and had they known, as a band, that the Military was a sponsor of the event they would never have agreed to play. Its rough to issue a Mea Culpa from the stage as you are playing the event but at least he saw through the bullshit and shared his indignation with the audience [make a fist, put your foot down, pout from the well branded stage]. Of course all the overly sensitive people that are in the military or have family in the military will be sending angry letters to 91X bemoaning a point I’m sure they completely missed. But, whatever right? It’s the music business and like Radio’s corporate counterparts in the record industry, they’ll continue to stick their head in the sand and wait for someone to save them. Sort of like a frog in a pot of water set to boil.

AM! did an on-air interview with Kallao and Capone. It was as cringe-worthy in broadcast as I’m sure it was in person. I’ve done my share of interviews with bands and it was really fascinating to witness the interviewers stumble and squirm when the band basically got hold of the reigns and took them to task. Asking Gabel who he was going to vote for in 08 warranted an especially prickly response. He said he didn’t know cause he didn’t know who the nominees were yet. Dead air and back peddling ensued. Nothing better than watching two douche bags choke on their own lack of preparation.

AM! was significantly antagonistic, more so when asked idiotic questions about working with Butch Vig and the ‘White People for Peace’ video. Anyone could ask the band those questions by looking at a bio their publicist had sent. It was amateur hour and it was telling of how unconnected to music people in radio seem to be. Most of the folks that know the most about music are the interns doing work for free and staying late, just for that ‘one chance man. To make a difference and get some real music on the air…’ Ah, the ellipsis of youthful hope trails off into guaranteed disappointment.

As a caveat to Gabel’s quickness to bash the music industry through song and defiantly voice disgust with performing at a concert with active military recruitment, I question the bands willingness to do a performance appearance on MTV’s scripted soap opera, The Hills the night after playing the 91X concert. MTV and MTV2 have aired US Armed Forces ads for years and the show, The Hills is a perfect representation of disposable entertainment. What would have come across initially as some fist pumping ‘fuck the man’ style punk rock angst instead came across as some petulant jerk whining about a system he’s willingly embraced when he signed a contract with Sire. I enjoy the music of Against Me!, but the context of presentation has lost most of its credibility.

How will 91X look in 2008? We’ll lose Cantore who is getting replaced by Adam Corolla in the Mornings in 08’ so if you didn’t get enough irrelevant banter from Adam and Danny Bonadouchebag before they got scratched from what became Sophie, you’ll get a fair amount next year. What other necks are on the chopping block at 91X? They’ve taken a local friendly rock format from sort of mediocre to notably shitty in less than a year. Then they’ve tried to take on the Disturbed/System of Down/Creed style hard rock format of Rock 105 and to no avail. Rock 105 has taken some shots across the 91X deck by declaring some semblance of turf war-like ownership on the ‘rock’ format ‘Rock 105.3. San Diegos ORIGINAL Rock Station,’ says the whiskey voiced announcer.

Alas, like most institutionalized businesses the corporate management never asks the right questions of the right people because they are certain they can provide their own answers no matter how ill informed and misled they are.

We CAN control the medium. But when will the radio accede to a paradigm shift determined by the listeners?

5 thoughts on “We Can Control the Medium: Radio’s Dying Gasps

  1. In defense of Kallao he knows more about music then most people know about themselves, He worked from the bottom up.

    Keep in mind management Doesn’t like free speech and most bands aren’t worth the image printed on them .

  2. which is laudable and the point of the post is that suits run radio instead of people that really care about music. i like kallao and don’t doubt his experience but he still got pushed under the bus and his knowledge in music didn’t translate in this particular incident.

  3. (just saw this…hope it’s not in poor form this late)

    Tom was a remarkably articulate and intelligent interview when I dealt with him the year previous. This time however, we met with them 15 minutes after they found out the Marines were involved in the toy drive. Needless to say, they had no interest in playing nice which is their choice as musicians.

    You may have seen the bands actions as appropriate. It sounded horrible, which is why I enjoyed it so much. It was real, it was completely jarring (you know, the types of things on radio that don’t happen) And where you saw Tom Gabel making us look foolish, the majority of the listeners heard an arrogant and combative interviewee who sounded like he could care less about playing. To their customers. And yes, I said customers.

    Was it insulting to Against Me! to ask softball questions regarding Butch Vig? Sure. But the fact remained that only a small percentage of 91x listeners knew much about against me! Save for thrash unreal. So yes, while boring as shit to the band to hear it for the seven millionth time…this is the first time someone who has never been to your website has. So if you’re not about gathering new supporters, don’t agree to do radio shows.

    If there weren’t fans standing in front of the band I would have cut the interview two minutes in. It was obvious they didn’t want to be there.

    I think your insight regarding radio is spot on however. I will ask one question? Where do you stand? Towards the beginning of the article you seemed in favor of the outright condemnation of it (citing it’s increasing irrelevance), but by the end you tell us “we can control the medium.”

    Which is it? I tend to think it’s the former. Radio is finished.

  4. I guess I’ll answer the last part first. Radio is irrelevant as an efficient marketing tool because it works in a pre-web business model—broad messaging for wide audience to sell products. This is also why radio works as an influencer on the publics taste in music. Like network television up until the cable boom of the 80’s, everyone could relate and buy into a brand like Ovaltine or Palmolive because those companies could capitalize on three channels of choice—like fishing with dynamite. Cable increased the ‘choices’ a consumer could make when tuning in, just like the web and satellite has for ‘radio’ listeners. It began the popularization of niche marketing as the web has made it possible for hyper local/hyper niche marketing.

    However, as a medium I believe radio can influence a greater amount of casual listeners than a web based radio program mostly because people spend a greater deal of time in places they’d use a radio eg in traffic and as such brands can be assured their dynamite is still somewhat effective.

    On the other hand, web based radio and satellite can influence people to take an active part in music, i.e. purchasing records, going to shows, being part of a music community and so forth. Being in the industry and having your experience I’m sure you know the power of those local music radio formats like Indie 101, Tim Pyles, KCRW and John Peel (RIP). The power those jocks have is in their ability to filter out the shit and provide the public with quality music, not just some new band that is supposed to move units or are attached to a brand.

    I’d like to address something else. Looking back at this post, which has since turned into an essay over the period of 3 months, I’ve come to realize that sometimes shooting from the hip, like bloggers are known to do isn’t always in the interest of accuracy—and it should be. As a journalist I should know better. Knee jerk opinions are counterproductive to fully formed arguments. That’s why Drudge and Perez can make a living out of this and millions of other armchair pundits like me can’t. Tom was petulant from the stage and a prick in the interview but his band still got paid and to continue a façade that Against Me! has some sort of Fugazi-like ethics and doesn’t like the industry is futile and insults his former fanbase and his potential fanbase.

    So now that you’ve had some time away from radio, what is next for you and your colleagues who have been so unceremoniously canned from San Diego’s “Cutting Edge of Rock?”

  5. sorry. in all that hot air i forgot to answer the other part. “we can control the medium” in context means WE decide WHEN to tune out, buy an xm or sirius reciever, download a podcast, steal mp3’s (by the way, 128 bit sucks, rip everything as 320, the quality is better, or just go buy something you love and take an active role in consuming it) tivo a bad episode of lost, download I Am Legend from a torrent, etc. its the best and worst lyric Tom ever wrote on an album i haven’t listened to since it dropped.

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