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Yeah, yeah, we know. It's an iPod/choose-your-own-adventure/satellite radio world. Old-school terrestrial radio is dead. Who wants to mess around with presets on a car dial when you can run 7,000 songs through your iPod-infused cassette deck or DVD player, or tune in to the satellite radio station microprogrammed for your microniche?
Especially given the state of old-fashioned radio here in Houston. Tune in there, and expect to be treated to shit and shittier. Whether it's the Buzz, the Arrow, KILT, the Mix, Sunny or (especially) the Point, Houston radio, at least on the commercial FM dial, is a complete and utter abomination. Anyone with any taste at all abandoned the whole medium and its attendant death-stench long ago, and yet still it rolls on here, spinning the same tired old artists playing the same old songs. It's hard to believe this is America's fourth-largest city when our radio is pumping out “Under the Bridge” and “Picture” ten times an hour; stuff like that makes Houston seem more like Waco.
It's time for something new. If music is going to survive on the radio, if the medium is to survive as something other than a vehicle for talk stations, it must be open to experimentation. They've gotten that memo in Dallas, where a couple of weeks ago, Clear Channel Radio dismantled a flagging classic rock station and turned it into Lone Star 92.5 FM, which boasts a new Southern rock/outlaw country hybrid format tailor-made for Texas. I randomly clicked on the station's Web site Monday, and the last ten songs played included selections by David Allen Coe, the Drive By Truckers, Rhett Miller, ZZ Top, Kevin Fowler, the Allman Brothers, the Eagles and Steve Miller.
Cool as that format is, there's even better news. The station does not play traditional commercials. Instead, companies buy hour-long sponsorships, and the DJs work in a mere two minutes per hour of casual plugs for the products between songs. So far, sponsors include Coors, Guitar Center and Southwest Airlines, and each of those companies will be the sole sponsor in their product category. (In other words, you won't be hearing any Shiner or Continental ads on there.)
I truly believe such drastic measures are not just desirable, but mandatory. People are sick of the same old songs and long-ass commercial breaks, and now they have a billion alternatives. There should be something of an element of surprise to music radio, and today, my own iPod is far more likely to amaze me with a cool segue than any of Houston's commercial stations.
On a Thursday afternoon last week, I sat down at a table in front of Sig's Lagoon on Main with local rock radio luminary David Sadof and talked over these matters. I also played him a burned CD of “KMAX,” my own proposed format a mix of underground and old-school rap and alternative rock new and old.
First, about that word “alternative.” When guys like Sadof and I were younger, it meant something. In regards to music, it meant something very much like this dictionary.com definition: “Employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment.” “Today, the word ‘alternative' is pretty much meaningless,” Sadof says. (And if you listen to the Buzz Houston's self-proclaimed “New Music Alternative” you have to wonder: alternative to what?”)
But here's what I mean on the rock end: I would spin new acts like Lily Allen, the Arcade Fire, the Shins, Drive By Truckers, Amy Winehouse and Scott Miller alongside neglected oldies by bands like the Clash, the Smiths, the Jam, XTC, the Cure, and the Ramones. To that, I would add a rap mix of stuff by Public Enemy, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, the Wu-Tang Clan, OutKast, Eric B. and Rakim and Cypress Hill. (Since this is, after all, Houston, you would also hear Scarface/Geto Boys, Devin the Dude, Z-Ro, Big Moe, UGK and Lil' Keke too.)
So you see, it's not that different from one of those “we-play-anything” Jack formats, only it's not as hung up on the past. Nevertheless, Sadof is not so sure it would work. “You have a big group of people who are into the classic alternative bands, and that group might not like the newer rock,” he says. “And then you have the rap crowd. They might not like any of the rock.”
In his view, an experiment like that should take place on college radio. “What you are describing sounds to me [like] what college radio should sound like,” he says. He thinks that it's unfortunate that it doesn't, at least not in Houston. Sadof's exasperation with KTRU is unrelenting. “When I was on the radio, I always tried to educate my listeners,” he says. “I would play a couple of songs, and then come on and tell people what I just played, who played it, what album it was on and so on. KTRU will play 30 minutes of music and then the DJ will come on and mumble a bunch of stuff. Maybe he will tell you what he just played, maybe he won't. You're supposed to know, or something, and if you don't, well, you're just not very cool. Radio should be more welcoming than that.”
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