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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Fans of Sadof's “Lunar Rotation” show on the old Buzz and defunct station The Rocket will already know this, but his dream station his is called “KDAV” is a lot less elaborate than mine. (And realistically, probably more viable.) His would pretty much confine itself to the old-school alternative rock he has played since 1981, and the bands that music has directly inspired. “A bunch of bands that start with ‘C,'” he says. “Costello, the Clash, the Cult, the Church, the Cure. None of those bands are getting played anywhere here anymore, pretty much, or if they are, it's just one song.” And judging by the list of bands on his MySpace page (myspace.com/thelastdj), he would also be spinning newer bands like the Arctic Monkeys, Ash, Tapes N' Tapes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as well.
A station like Sadof's might not be a ratings blockbuster on the level of the Box or Majic 102, but could it do any worse than the Point? If you are going to draw ratings as lousy as the Point's, wouldn't you rather do it playing songs like Sadof is touting instead of the Point's insomnia-curing mélange of Boston, Genesis, “Sunglasses at Night,” Billy Idol and freaking “The Heat of the Moment”? What's more, there's infinitely more upside to Sadof's proposition. A station like KDAV could conceivably do very well. After all, it's not like huge numbers of Houstonians are gonna wake up tomorrow and think, “You know, it's been way too long since I last heard Men Without Hats and A Flock of Seagulls. I think I'm gonna tune into the Point and rip out the knob.”
So I attended my first ever musical “house party,” wherein a touring artist plays at the home of a fan. In this case, it was Nashville alt-country songwriter Mark Germino, who performed in the high-rise home of local performer Lise Liddell. Dug the show, and even more so Germino's stories. The singer is an avid Wiffle Ball player, has a stadium in his backyard, plays in an established league and all that, and one day, he managed to wangle having Harmon Killebrew over for a game. (Killebrew hit 573 Major League home runs and is in the Hall of Fame. He is also rumored to be the guy Major League Baseball used a model for that silhouette that is the symbol for the league.) “He didn't really want to play,” Germino remembered. “He just watched us for a long time. We begged him to get in there and bat, and he finally did. He took three or four pitches and then just hit a rocket down the third baseline foul. I have never seen a Wiffle Ball hit that hard in all my life. Then he just went back over to the sidelines and started watching again”ÉCaught a rehearsal of the Umbrella Man on Sunday night. This is the new project that combines the forces of Nick Gaitan of Los Skarnales, Geoffrey Muller of Medicine Show and fiddler Hilary Sloan. Interesting stuff they play a mix of old-time country, blues, klezmer, Gypsy swing, covers and originals like the blues Muller sang about his no-account former roommate, the Kaiser Soze of the Houston music scene Hambone, who is currently a denizen of the Texas Department of Criminal JusticeÉLater that night, I caught a couple of tunes from Son Volt at their sold-out Continental Club show, before heading over to Third Ward to see what Etta's Lounge had put in to replace Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters, which turned out to be nothing, no music at all, at least last Sunday. Sad.