Monday, February 25, 2008

"Radio Nowhere" by John Amos

I was trying to find my way home,
But all I heard was a drone,
Bouncing off a satellite,
Crushing the last lone American night.
This is Radio Nowhere.
Is there anybody alive out there?

--Bruce Springsteen

Well, is there? Will somebody please answer the man’s question: Is anybody alive out there? I’ve been listening, but it seems pretty dead to me. Commercial radio, once such a potent means of communication, has become an utter wasteland.

I spend two hours a day in my truck, which doesn’t have a working CD player. So I listen to a lot of radio. I’ve got ten preset buttons, but only a couple are worth pushing.

Most stations today play pre-programmed “hits.” Few have live deejays. Of the ones that do, advertisements and silly talk predominate. Crude humor abounds. Once we had Wolfman Jack; now we have Imus, Stern, and a host of other shock-jock wannabes.

Stations try to grab listeners with fizzy promises (“more music, less talk”) and catchy slogans (“Generation Radio,” an inane euphemism for the oldies format). What’s missing, of course, is any sort of community connection. I realize the bottom-line drives a station’s programming decisions, but the fact remains: pre-packaged shows, produced in nameless places, are no substitute for the real, live thing.

Most stations today are owned by huge corporations. That’s why they all sound alike. Can’t take a chance on something original, so we’ll just play another worn out old standby, tell another smutty joke. The result: homogenized play-lists and tasteless talk.

It was not always so.

In fact, not that long ago radio was a vibrant part of this community. Orange’s tiny station had talent that much larger markets must have envied. Arch Harrison, Ross Hunter, and Bill Little were classy broadcasters with made-for-radio voices. The station also developed young talent, hiring high school students as broadcast interns, who learned the ropes quickly and soon became radio personalities in their own right. These folks took their work seriously, and they put out a product that people wanted, maybe even needed, to hear.

My grandmother listened religiously to The Swap Shop, a sort of on-air yard sale. She loved hearing people call in to trade clothes, cars, books, and other odd-and-ends. I once heard an old farmer on The Swap Shop attempt to trade a bushel of sweet potatoes for a 1968 Ford Galaxy transmission. I kid you not.

People tuned in on Friday nights to hear Hornet football games. They listened on election night to local politicos discuss the vote tallies. Teenagers called, requesting songs and offering dedications. People set their alarms to hear their neighbors’ birthdays announced. Churches took turns airing Sunday morning services.

None of it was particularly exciting, but it was genuine. Real people, real entertainment, and real information. Of course, it’s no longer cost-effective; but surely something has been lost.
A few oases still exist in today’s radio wasteland. National Public Radio provides a wonderful medley of music, interviews, and in-depth reporting. A Prairie Home Companion is the closest thing we have to the classic shows of the 30’s and 40’s.

Closer to home, several Charlottesville stations are bucking the trend. WNRN advertises itself as “community radio” and plays a wonderful grab-bag of music. 106.1 “The Corner” lives up to its slogan, “Different is Good.” And you never know what gem you’ll hear next on WTJU. These stations mix passionate volunteers with seasoned, professional deejays to create something worth listening to.

And in Orange, Phil Goodwin continues to report daily on local news. He’s a humane and intelligent voice, crying in the wilderness.

The internet is also trying hard to revive the medium. XM and Sirius offer stations devoted to blues, jazz, sports-talk, and just about anything else you could want. Services like Pandora and actually allow listeners to build their own stations. Though I like the concept, internet radio seems a bit sterile to me. Good radio should deliver a sense of place, and who can say where the internet originates?

Radio, far more than television, relies on an audience’s imagination. Without pictures, it has only words, voice, and human warmth to reach listeners. This requires a person at the other end of the microphone, not a recording.

Like the newspaper industry, radio is struggling to remain relevant in the modern age. It will only survive by cultivating the human connection. Abandon that, and all you’ve got left is waves, bouncing off a satellite.

- John Amos

©2008 by John Amos
Reprinted by permission

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