Radio Dead Transmission

This is an essay/in depth version of my Radio’s Dying Gasps post. This latest post was published on Milehive.com a few weeks back.

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

You don’t really need a wiki entry to tell you that Top 40 radio acts as” an arbiter and barometer of musical taste.” We just accept that radio has always been a place to go and listen to music. Formats are determined by market demographics. In widely diverse markets you have a rock station, hip hop station, oldies station, pop or Top 40’s station broadcast to the widest array of listeners. We have early commercial radio, pervasive proliferation of the television set and it’s subsequent siphoning off of dramatic content to TV and poor black southern communities to thank for the popularity of rock music.

You also don’t need Sarah Silverman to tell you Radio sucks either, however, radio has been dying a slow death for the past decade (just like the CD), losing ad revenue to companies that have increased their spending online. 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. Yes, it still happens, just google payola and you’ll find out about some major label (Sony) payola that was swept under the table within the past few years Not that Elliot Spitzer is the most credible person right now but in 2005 he was quoted in the Sony BMG settlement saying, “Sony BMG and the other record labels present the public with a skewed picture of the country’s ‘best’ and’ most popular’ recorded music.” Besides, public airwaves sold toprivate companies to sell products to consumers seemed like an ethically flawed system ultimately.

Santa Monica, Calif.’s, KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic host Nic Harcourt (pictured above) doesn’t see commercial radio getting any better either. “Commercial radio has finessed its approach to such a point where its sole purpose is to sell products and deliver goods to a specific demographic audience. It comes down to selling beer and donut sand burgers. I don’t see that changing. But the good news is that we now have the Internet.”

Harcourt also puts faith in continued technological advances. Entire cities with wireless internet are now possible. Soon the point will tip to a majority of hand held devices that are able to tune into any internet radio program available from around the world-further democratizing a slowly dying corporate system.

Bands have begun to operate differently as a result of the industry shortfall. In a recent Adage article, James McQuivey, a former Forrester analyst, said the days of the big endorsement contracts like MJ or Britney had with Pepsi are gone. The new version looks a lot more like Nascar and I’ll estimate that within half a decade you’ll have bands endorsing dozens of products to offset the lost revenue from things like radio royalties increased touring costs and downloading. Sure, fans will scream ‘sell-out’ till they are blue in the face but any working band out there will counter by showing you their bank statement before and after an endorsement deal. So prior to sending that righteously indignant email to Band Of Horses for licensing a song to Wal-Mart, imagine what it’d be like to get paid the equivalent of 9 dollars a day touring the country in a cramped van and sleeping on a strangers floor.

Besides, there is only ONE Madonna, who can land a 365 contract with LiveNation.

So now brands will become music promotion vehicles and the relevancy of the Radio format drops further. I doubt you heard Sara Bareilles, Feist or Paramore on your local dial before you heard them on their respective television placement commercials. Traditional methods of measuring media’s effectiveness are “reaching a breaking point,”according to Konrad Feldman, CEO of Quantcast, and as a result many Ad agencies are trying to find better ways to spend their clients money for effective advertising. So while most commonly you’ll find more successful media outlets angling toward hyper local markets and niches, floundering media entities will continue to wrap their desperate tentacles around the idea of being everything for everyone.

In another example of Radio’s crumbling empire, EMusic, an online music retailer inked a deal with Avis car rental company to provide content for it’s rental cars, effectively taking control of the car stereo, a place once reserved for traditional radio. Sirius Satellite radio has a similar agreement with Hertz (and an exclusive partnership with Astin Martin) and more and more autos are being manufactured with MP3 players or with a direct connect to a digital device, further shrinking the reach of radio. Just within the past 2 years corporate spending onmedia, which once favored Radio and Television has shifted to stronger showing online, where a company can directly measure the success of anad campaign through trusted analytics measurement.

Radio has helped perpetuate a culture of lame tunes pitch corrected to dust (I’m talking about you Rhianna AND you Britney)! By playing a song so many times consumers are compelled to plug their ears. How can that be an effective way for a radio station to do business? The stations mine a tune until that little flicker of brilliance that made the song catchy in the first place has dulled. If you haven’t noticed, music has become predictable, less dangerous and more disposable as the market where it exists has become less profitable and more stagnant. Why would I buy a song I know they’re going to play 3 more times in the next hour when I can go online to a torrent and download the single immediately? And for those of you, who cry foul at downloading, help yourself to a big scoop of shut the fuck up! The rest of the album sucks anyway right? Do you have any idea how much money it costs a band to make a record? Do you have any idea how much of that money ends up back at the label?

Radio is the product delivery system. So when you change your FM dial and end up with the last 30 seconds of the same song your current station just started playing, it’s not to annoy you, it is because the music is as much a product as the commercials.

We CAN control the medium. Turn off your radio.

Waxing Originality: An Interview with Morning Becomes Eclectic Host, Nic Harcourt

I was giddy with excitement to do this interview with Nic Harcourt. I first heard Morning Becomes Eclectic when I did a summer stint in LA in 98. I was blown away by the shows content, and coming from doing Capital Hill Pirate Radio in Denver as well as listening to Boulders Radio 1190, gave me hope that my choice in going for a broadcasting major at the time was a smart move. I even applied to go to school at Santa Monica City College. It was respectable. Of course after some deep thought and consideration I realized that college radio is great college radio because it is run by students and that Nic Harcourt is just one example of brilliance in all the murkiness of the FM dial. Plus, coming to the conclusion that my speaking voice is somnambulistic, which could jeopardize my delusions of becoming the next John Peel or Rodney Bingenheimer, turned me off that particular career path. As is the case with most things, most radio sucks, mostly. Just like most music sucks, mostly. That is until you find something that speaks to you and doesn’t suck. Those little gems do exist and what a wonderful world we live in where you just have to look a little deeper to find them.

nic harcourt

Everybody has an opinion about radio. Personally, I think that commercial radio sucks. It is predictable and boring, and with the ever present censorship from the FCC destroying anything funny or original, it’d be a safe bet to say that you could go from San Diego to Buffalo, NY and hear the exact same morning show or afternoon drive time brain bubbler.

Yeah, for some, the morning radio experience was bearable having Howard Stern to stir the pot and get you laughing, sighing with disgust and pity, or pounding your fist against the wheel screaming, “INDECENT, VILE, REPREHENSIBLE.” Now he’s going to satellite radio where listeners will have to pay for quality programming. Depending on what your perspective of ‘quality’ happens to be. Whatever the case, radio is poison, a giant viper-like marketing tool used by corporations to ‘buy people’ while being heavily monitored by the government.

Luckily, stations like Santa Monica’s non-profit KCRW (89.9 FM), and more specifically the Morning Becomes Eclectic radio series, provide exceptional programming and-gasp-good MUSIC! Music that you won’t hear repeated a million times in the span of an hour. The show’s host, Nic Harcourt, joined KCRW in the spring of 1998 after nearly a decade in Woodstock. NY, where he built a program similar to the one he successfully produces now.

KCRW is a not-for-profit radio station licensed through Santa Monica City College that has the luxury of being autonomous from advertisers whims and a CEO’s stock portfolio. We caught up with Nic Harcourt while on a commute with his two very vocal 2-year-old daughters.

Shane Roeschlein: How do you decide what to play? Do you get an obnoxious amount of submissions from bands?
Nic Harcourt: Morning Becomes Eclectic has evolved over time, and you know, it’s a bit of both. You find bands yourself and then bands send stuff in. We get about 400 CDs a week. We try and go through them as best we can. Obviously, we can’t go through every CD, but you try and listen to snippets from tracks.

Its purely subjective, I do a free-form radio show, and at the end of the day when you do a free form radio show, the host has to want to play it. If I like it and I feel like playing it, I’ll play it. It has to be unique and unlike regular radio.

SR: You’re on the third Morning Becomes Eclectic compilation and there are performances by bands like Radiohead, My Morning Jacket and Paul Weller, to name a few, but most interesting are all of the bands that blew up this year!
NH: Its worth me pointing out that when people look at these compilations and say most of these bands are already known, quite often the acts we’re putting on the CDs of our live sessions were recorded before they were known. The Sounds Eclectic 3 CD has a live cut from Interpol and a cut from Franz Ferdinand, and those bands are huge right now. Those cuts were from their very first radio station sessions.

We draw from the material we already have and some of it is from bands that have broken through already and some of it isn’t.

SR: What do you base your interview criteria on? It seems similar in concept to John Peel and the BBC sessions but in an interview type of setting?
NH: It depends on who they are, you know? If it’s somebody who is really huge, like Coldplay for instance, who I’ve had on the show three times, and the first time I had them on the show was their first live performance in America. It was the first radio appearance in America and their first gig. We had a record of theirs by then and had played it but the audience didn’t really know anything about them. Whenever I have a band on that people don’t know much about then I ask them questions about their background, where they’re from, who their influences are. I figure that my listeners want to know who they are. But if it’s a band that’s a little more popular-and we’ll use Coldplay as an example again-coming back on the show their third time as a multi-platinum artist-you tend to focus on things like what they’ve been up to and maybe how they’re handling fame and success.

Though the majority of the artists we have on the show are artists that don’t get a lot of opportunities to play live radio sessions, or at least they’re at a point in their career where that hasn’t happened for them yet.

SR: Where do you see radio in the next five years, and do you feel commercial radio can get any worse?
NH: Maybe, but I don’t see it getting any better. Commercial radio has finessed its approach to such a point where its sole purpose is to sell products and deliver goods to a specific demographic audience. It comes down to selling beer and donuts and burgers. I don’t see that changing. But the good news is that we now have the Internet.

Stations like the station I work at are finding a whole new audience outside for our cities who are looking on the Web for an alternative to commercial radio.

There is a lot of talk about satellite radio right now. My belief is that the real fun and games start when we can have a truly wireless Internet and you can listen to Internet on a hand-held device or in your car. I think that will democratize the process more.

SR: You obviously have a good barometer of judgment on strong, independent music. A lot of places are adopting your programming model, slapping a new coat of paint on it and calling it original, what’s up with that?
NH: I think that indie rock is hot right now and I think that you’re finding the commercial world is calling itself that now. They call themselves “Independent.” You’ve got stations calling themselves independent, and you have shows like the O.C. that serve a similar purpose, but I think they’re just lifting that from somewhere else, you know what I mean? Those guys aren’t discovering new music; they’re taking it from places like KCRW or Weblogs. It’s all well and good for the O.C. to decide to put the Shins on their programs, but the Shins were getting airplay on non-commercial and college radio five years ago. The O.C. isn’t cutting edge, but I suppose they seem cutting edge for the mainstream.

THANKS NIC!

Morning Becomes Eclectic: Morning Becomes Eclectic is committed to a music experience that celebrates innovation, creativity and diversity by combining progressive pop, world beat, jazz, African, reggae, classical and new music. Recognized nationally as a forum for promoting a wide range of music ahead of the curve, the show has become a very attractive whistle stop for both established and emerging artists from around the world.

KCRW now offers podcasts of some of the live sessions performed by unsigned and independent artists on Morning Becomes Eclectic.

The show is hosted by Nic Harcourt.

For more information, please visit http://www.kcrw.com/show/mb

Records you should be listening to this week: Aesop, Tegan and Sara, Les Savy Fav, Akimbo, Big Business

Aesop Rock – None Shall Pass Defjux Records

Aesop comes correct with this delightful answer to all the Kanye’d out crap hop pop, questioning existence, social status, and our place as humans in the grand scheme of things. Clever rhymes over slick beats produced in majority by Blockhead with the standout single and album namesake being one of the strongest. El-P lends his tasteful ingredients to “Gun for the Whole Family” and Aesop comes as the strongest closer with tracks 1, 7 and 11. This is a must have and will definitely be making my top 10 for 07.

Les Savy Fav – Let’s Stay Friends FrenchKiss Records

Tim Harrington and the gang took 6 years off to have a bunch of other slightly less interesting adventures while we all languished in their absence. Luckily they’ve managed to deliver one of their strongest albums to date. The post-punk guitar work of Seth Jabor cuts through Tim’s humorous barks as bassist Syd Butler and drummer Harrison Haynes provide one of the strongest backbones this side of Fugazi’s Joe Lally and Brendan Canty.

Big Business – Here Come the Waterworks Hydrahead

Well looks like Warren and Coady have accomplished what I didn’t think they’d be able to do – outshine the Melvins (a) Senile Animal with Here Comes the Waterworks. The two bands have been intertwined for some time now with Big Business official members of the legendary band. The addition of guitarist David Scott Stone to the drum and bass duo added that level of mid-range tonality they’d been missing on previous records. Waterworks is still incredibly dense and percussive. “Shields,” is one of my favorite tracks, it is intense. And I got it on 180 g gold vinyl!!!

Tegan and Sara – The Con Sire

For a major label release this album is ridiculously well produced. It helps that these twin nymphs employed the skilled hand of Chris Walla who for the past 5 years has crapped nothing but pure pop gold. While 2005’s So Jealous was a tad more acoustic guitar rock friendly, The Con welcomes Matt Sharp and his deft syth skills on more than a few tracks, giving this record some amazing hooks. Tegan and Sara’s lyrics have matured as well. This will be another record that radio stations will pass over but that doesn’t mean you should. Besides, who listens to the radio anymore anyway? You should listen to DJ Rosstar or Nic Harcourt at the very least anyway.

Akimbo – Navigating the Bronze Alternative Tentacles

For former Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra’s record label that doesn’t have any bands doing any touring or moving any units, Akimbo is carrying more than their fair share. Touring in a van, eating Ramen noodles and drinking copious amounts of beer and playing places like San Diego’s illustrious local drunk drain, Scolari’s office make Akimobo’s brand of rock that much more palatable. “Wizard Van Wizard” contends to be the cock-rockiest of all nine tracks but the boys show their tenderness by moisturizing their thumbs prior to insertion on “The Curse of King David,” a riff driven aural assault.