Basically, Corporate Radio Stinks

When was the last time you turned on a radio and listened to a local station?

For me it was more than 3 months ago.  Even then it wasn’t strictly a “local” radio station.   I was in the Jeep, playing with the car radio.   I’m in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market.   I was listening to ZNS Bahamas out of Freeport.

After I got bored with that, I switched through a series of “HD” radio stations, all of which were better than FM quality sound, but all of which were “automated”.   Basically listening to someone else’s iPod.

This morning, my own iPod needed a charge so I switched over to my phone, started an app that goes out and finds radio stations and internet-only broadcasters.   I finally settled on a bitcaster that is internet only out of Germany that plays top 40 music in English.

Only.   No Commercials.

It got me thinking how far things have changed.

In my father’s day, there was AM.   There weren’t too many choices, they all had static, and way back in his day, there were actual programs.  This was before TV, so there were dramas, comedies, and special interest programs run.

TV changed all that, and it became music.   News on the hour and the half, sports when “there was a game on”.   Offerings got more diverse.  By the time I got interested in radio, I started with Dad’s Radio, a Blaupunkt Shortwave/AM/FM/Longwave that still works.  Glass tubes that glowed warmly and delivered a surprisingly mellow sound.

We had Rock, Dance, RnB, and more.  But still we had diversity in programming because the markets were managed.  No one company was permitted to own too many radio stations in any given area.  

That all changed in the late 90s and by the 2000s, Radio (with a capital R) pretty much was dead or dying.

Sure, people still listened to it, but the MP3 players and iPods came on the scene.  You could program your own music if you had a mind to it.  It would take a bit of effort, but you could do it.  I skated 21,000 miles listening to cobbled together podcasts legally downloaded from the internet.

I still had Dad’s Radio, but by then the BBC World Service that I grew up with had pulled the plug on its services in North America and for the most part and the only things I found were some stations that I didn’t have too much interest in.  Once BBC was gone, Radio Nederlands was hard to find and that left me with CBC.  It was too easy to find other outlets for news and general interest programming.

Luckily it was easy to keep loading up the iPod and surf stations online at home or work.  I was listening to a station in Miami when I lived in Philadelphia, and if that lost my interest there was BBC Radio 4 or an excellent dance station in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

The world opened up and local radio died to me.  

I would only listen to NPR on the way home if I was following the news, otherwise back to the iPod because, again, Corporate radio stinks.

I guess the next step is what we do in the car.   Here we are in a major media market in the US and we can’t find anything to listen to that isn’t 22 minutes of commercials plus probably as much “DJ Patter”.   So fire up the phone, plug it into the car audio input, and play some bitcaster on Kevin’s unlimited data account.

Commercials make me twitchy, and always have.  I’m the fastest remote clicker in the East.

Why bother listening to something local in the car when you can have something that you enjoy?  Forget Sirius Satellite Radio, they’re just as bad with all that blathering from abysmal DJs like that horrendous Tim Bauman. 

I wish I never got Sirius XM.  It’s better than Corporate Radio but it’s like saying I’m happy the cold I have is not the Flu.

Some of the lesser popular or “fringe” music formats are simply not available in Corporate Radio because they don’t have the right demographics.  Smooth Jazz, which got very big for a couple years, drew an older audience primarily.   It’s rare that you’d find a teenager who was really into listening to a smooth jazz audience.  On the other hand, it was played pretty much everywhere – dentist and doctors offices, elevators and the like.   It had a place.  Small shops would love to have it on because it would be much less jarring than a Top 40 station in the background.

But they left South Florida, at least for a while.   They may be back, I haven’t checked.   My godmother, Kathie, is a huge Smooth Jazz fan, and she simply left the radio off for most of the time.   10th largest market in the US and she simply ignored the radio.   Eventually she got a smartphone and a data account and happily can listen to her Smooth Jazz wherever she likes.

Really, there has to be a better way to do it, but I suspect that the Genie is out of the Bottle.  The Radio in the car dash of the future will have a port to plug into the phone, and a volume control.   FM?  Who needs it, we’ve moved on.   AM?  Wall to wall static from distant cities and right-wing and religious shouters.   Again, we’ve moved on.

At least I have, and so has my godmother… and so has …. well you get the picture.

Now, I think I’ll change the channel.   Time for some Goa or some Trance. Maybe some Hawaiian or Bhangra.  I’ve got a world of choice and commercial Corporate radio is none of it.

Studio 54 on Sirius XM

I haven’t really been a fan of Sirius XM.  I don’t travel often, and when I do I tend not to be in the car for a long enough time for me to get the radio and mount it in the Jeep.

I got Sirius about a year before Howard Stern was on the air there, and while Howard was a reason I got the service, I am not a steady listener. 

Actually why I got Sirius was that there was a promo at the time and I found that they had a good Disco channel, a good Trance Channel and a good Dance Channel that had very little chatter.  They also have a 40s music channel that is excellent and have the BBC World Service.

They don’t have BBC Radio 4 which would be an excellent addition since it is “Intelligent Talk” and one of the few places on radio that I know of that does actual game shows and has since the days of it’s infancy.  Radio 4 is how I learned how to speak English when the programming was actually on the World Service.

Through time, they gained Howard Stern and it was fascinating to see what this amazing entertainer and his side kicks would do if they were unleashed.  Having been able to speak your mind, freely, and not speak like a child which is required by the FCC was a freedom few broadcasters have.  They went through their period that there were many “rude words” on the station until they realized that it wasn’t fun anymore and went back to being one of the more intelligent and fascinating discussions on radio.

Yes, even though I don’t listen frequently, I still am a fan of their work.

On the other hand, the music channels began to resemble the pablum that you find on “terrestrial radio”.  It is amazingly difficult to keep a channel going with fresh music if you are broadcasting an older format of music that isn’t particularly popular any more.  If they aren’t making any new Glenn Miller music, you just won’t have it to play.  Their 40s channel does seem to manage that well though finding things that I have never heard before.

The problem was the Dance Channels.  Since I can’t listen to Country and Rock bores me, I can’t vouch for those formats.  The paid for service was getting way too “standard radio”.  Whoever was programming the channels first deleted the dance hits channel and morphed it into the BPM channel when Sirius and XM merged.  It became basically what was a “Hot Hits” format if you remember that.  Play a song, play a station ID and yell what that was and what’s next while talking over the song you just started to play.  Some of the worst offenders of that are the DJs Tim Bauman and “Geronimo”. 

The idea of a dance station is to bring the music to you and present it like a live event.  When is the last time you went to a dance club and heard the DJ babbling about something over top of the music?  There weren’t any announcements the last time I was in one, nor for the years before.  It’s rare that you hear that.  Originally there were two hits stations on Sirius and one was with announcements.  The one I listened to was without announcements and was deleted.

It was about that time when I tired of the recycled 20 songs they played on the old Strobe channel.  They brought in 80s dance music, usually called Big 80s, and it just got unlistenable.  The Sirius radio gathered dust and I’ve ranted about that before.

Last month they decided that it was time to bring back a Disco channel.  It’s almost there.  It still is rotating some of the same songs but not quite “over and over”.  I found myself listening to the channel for more than 5 hours a day and only changed it when they put on some specific artists.

To this day I still can’t listen to “Lady T”.  Blah.  Can’t do it.  Tried and didn’t like her in the 70s or the 80s.  But that’s just me, we all have our favorite artists in any given music format.

However, they did something that was “authentic”.  The old disco channels on radio were known for basically putting on two tracks an hour in the evening if they had a long format song.  The “Disco Mix” of a song could be 17 minutes long where the “Radio Edit” would be one side of a 45 and would last about 3:30.  If they play a short version of a song it’s a surprise. 

If they could kill the announcements about how some person brought a leopard into Studio 54 and the rest of the trivia, it would help.  They tend to do fewer announcements than they do on other channels which is a blessing, but still more than would be “authentic”.  When played, they’re not playing these announcements over top of the music which much better than on many of their other channels.

I even heard some of the tracks that aren’t generally heard in a Disco station.  Some of the more obscure artists that you’d hear mixed in as a chance to test the waters are still heard.  After all, there’s a reason why certain tracks “didn’t make it”, but it’s nice to hear them even still.  It helps to keep the channel from going stale.

So I have a reason now to listen again.  It also gave me a reason to explore what else Sirius has to offer.  I’m again listening to 40s, as well as the classical music I grew up with.  The Studio 54 has been left on for hours, but I’ll switch into Jimmy Buffet once in a while and visit Margaritaville. 

They also put on a good R and B station called the Groove.   In Philadelphia in the late 70s, we were lucky.  We had one of the best Disco stations (and scenes) in the nation on WCAU.  We also had a wonderful, locally owned R and B station on WDAS.  If you didn’t hear something good to listen to on one, you would switch to the other, and it seemed like the stations knew it and used that knowledge to build something better.  When Clear Channel got massive and finally bought up all the radio stations in Philadelphia, WDAS was one of the last to go.  It felt like something died.  RnB wasn’t quite as edgy any more and it felt much more corporate and “cleansed”. 

Sirius managed to capture a little of that edge in The Groove.  Well worth the listen if you want to hear some dance and a little RnB mixed in.   I know I do.

So it’s better.   I’ve got Sirius on now playing in the headphones on the iPhone player.  At least I can listen without having the parrot going crazy that way.

It’s not perfect but they’re on their way.  They managed to make the Trance Channel something less special where they’re mixing more formats in instead of sticking with the format.  Electric Area plays around 3 distinct formats of music in a seemingly random fashion, meshing together badly.  At least there is www.di.fm/trance when I need a good trance fix.

Now if only they could get rid of those annoying announcements and DJs on the other channels…