As many if not most of my literally dozens of longtime readers know, it's safe to say that I am not a fan of the vast bulk of Houston radio. Outside of KACC's unrepentant rock from the saltgrass prairie down in Alvin, occasional moments of clarity on KTRU and KPFT, the nonstop funked-up party that is Fridays on KTSU and the day-by-day, all-around goodness that is KCOH, I find the entire English-language dial to be pretty much a badlands of canned programs, personality-free, sterile listening environments and music that passed its sell-by date back when gas went for a buck a gallon.
The Buzz packs as much wallop as a thimbleful of Coors Lite. The Mix is a Mess. The Point has none. Sunny is dreary. The Box was decent as of a few years ago, but no more — ringtone rap is choking what little life remains, inane ditty by inane ditty. Jack and K-Hits can't begin to compare with a decently stocked iPod, and it seems like the Arrow tries to fight off the tech revolution by constricting their playlist year by passing year. At any given moment on our FM dial, it wouldn't surprise me if Phil Collins were playing on five or even six stations at the same time, with Genesis and Mike and the Mechanics playing on most of the others.
The thing that frustrates me so much about this morass is that it doesn't have to be this way. Other cities have it much better.
Recently I went to one such city that, radiowise, is pretty much the opposite of Houston. While that lucky town's dial respects older artists, it also mixes in plenty of the new. And what's more, the programmers in that city go deeper in the catalogs of both types of artist.
And what variety on this city's dial! There are not only top-notch rap and R&B stations, but there's also an old-school hip-hop station, much like the one I've been calling for here for years, the one I'm sure would do quite well in the ratings.
There's also an indie rock station sporting the likes of LCD Soundsystem, !!!, the Black Keys and Les Savy Fav. There's a modern dance station spinning the likes of Simian Mobile Disco and Justice. There's an impeccably curated jazz station featuring Miles, Coltrane, Chet Baker and Art Blakey, and even a hardcore station. When was the last time you heard Bad Brains on the commercial radio? The 21st of never?
The classic rock station in this city is not as stale as last month's croissants; instead of the same ol' two or three songs from the same ol' warhorses, you get more obscure jams from the likes of David Bowie ("Fascination" instead of, I dunno, "Young Americans") and ZZ Top ("Thug" instead of one of "Sharp Dressed Man").
What's more, by including such artists as Iggy Pop and the Sisters of Mercy, this city's classic radio station updates the very ideal of what a classic rock radio station could and should be. In our sister paper Seattle Weekly, one of their bloggers called for just such a punk-y overhaul of classic rock. To quote: "A song like 'Lust for Life' has only entered contemporary popular sensibilities by being featured in television advertising. Why don't they ever play this song on the classic rock stations I listen to? Couldn't they bump Pink Floyd's 'Money' (great tune!!) a few turns out of the rotation to make room for Iggy?" Oh, and by the way, you might have heard of this blogger — his name is Krist Novoselic.
Even better than that, this city's wondrous radio dial is adorned with a glittering array of world music stations, including music for that city's Jamaican, African, Latin American and Eastern European immigrant communities, not to mention another station that encompasses the entire planet of funk. And then to cap it all, this city sports an ambient/chill-out station for those late-night drives home, and some of the funniest, most intelligent talk radio ever recorded.
Okay, okay. As many of you have no doubt cottoned on, this city I speak of does not really exist. It is, of course, the fictional Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto fame.
But wouldn't it be cool if real-life radio programmers took notice? Why shouldn't today's radio be as cool as the radio on Grand Theft Auto IV?
And wouldn't it also be cool if there were a Grand Theft Auto set in Houston? You could drop your enemies off of Transco Tower, open up with an AK in the Galleria, street-race a car-jacked Bentley around Mecom Fountain, skeez on strippers on the Richmond Strip and rob dope houses in Gulfton. It would be really cool if there were some kind of codeine simulator that slowed the action down...
As for game maps, most of the action would take place in the fictional city of Screwston. The beach town of Galvatraz would be another map, as would Chemtown, representing the Ship Channel and the refinery complexes in Baytown and Pasadena and so on. Las Robles could be the name for Houston's collected barrios, and maybe there could be a Saigon City, too.
I think this game might sell pretty well here, and who knows? It might be a reality sooner than we think. After all, I can remember when there was just one generic Monopoly set, and now they have a jillion themed sets. And hell, if Miami can get its own episode of this game, why not us?
Anyway, just for kicks, I designed my own (partial) radio universe for what I am calling Grand Theft Auto X: The Screwston Chronicles.
Gumbo Funk: Greasy jams from the Gulf Coast
Principal artists: The T.S.U. Toronadoes, the Meters, the Kashmere Stage Band, Archie Bell, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, Step Rideau, and Beau Jocque.
Radio 6400: For those who remember when ex-ing in Texas was free and legal
Principal artists: Alphaville, Bronski Beat, the Cure, the Smiths, the Normal, New Order, Erasure, Love and Rockets and Ministry.
Ridin' Dirty Radio: All U.G.K. all the time
Principal Artists: This would also include Bun B and Pimp C guest verses, remixes, mixtapes and solo records. Back in the early '80s, they actually tried this in Houston with the Beatles.
Balls and My Word: Houston hip-hop other than U.G.K.
Principal artists: Scarface/Geto Boys, Trae, Z-Ro, Slim Thug, Lil' Keke, DJ Screw, Fat Pat, Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Big Moe. Devin the Dude. (Scarface, Willie D., Z-Ro, and Trae could be playable characters.)
The Quest for Pure Sanity: The weirdest and most unsettling music from Texas
Principal Artists: Butthole Surfers, 13th Floor Elevators, Jandek, Ornette Coleman, Daniel Johnston, Rusted Shut, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, the Pain Teens, the Red Krayola, Jana Hunter, Bongo Joe, various Domokos projects, Linus Pauling Quartet, Culturcide.
Shady's Playhouse: Houston blues
Principal Artists: Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Little Joe Washington, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Earl Gilliam, Trudy Lynn.
The Old Quarter: Houston folk and country
Principal Artists: Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Eric Taylor, Nanci Griffith.
The Island: Best of Texas Punk/underground rock
Principal artists: Really Red, less freaky Butthole Surfers, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, various Tex Kerschen projects, Big Boys, Dicks, Scratch Acid, and I guess you'd have to throw the Judy's in here.
Radio Segundo Barrio: Old-school pachuco boogie
Principal artists: Los Skarnales, Don Tosti, Ritchie Valens, Los Lobos, Santana, Freddy Fender, various Doug Sahm projects, Sam the Sham, ? and the Mysterians, War, the Blazers, Los Lonely Boys.
Hand on the Pump: Hip-hop and modern pop with a Latin tinge
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Principal artists: Cypress Hill, Juan Gotti, Fat Joe, various Dr. Dre projects, Pitbull, Chingo Bling, Lucky Luciano, SPM, Rob G.
Radio Free Katrinaville: For the New Orleanians in exile
Principal artists: The entire universe of New Orleans music, but heavy on stuff from today and the recent past, such as Lil' Wayne, Mystikal, Juvenile, Soulja Slim and the Rebirth, New Birth, Soul Rebels, and Hot 8 brass bands.