Houston radio, and the sorry state thereof, has been a third rail of local conversation for as long as anyone here can remember. (Anyone under 40, anyway.) It’s a lot like the weather or traffic here: often frustrating and, since there's not a lot us ordinary folk can do about it one way or the other, perversely fun to complain about. It's as good a way to pass the time of day as any.
In the 21st century, this means you can count on a thread like “Why does Houston not have any good rock stations?” appearing on the leading local online water cooler, Reddit's Houston subgroup, every few months. This one showed up on New Year's Day, and had inspired almost 200 comments as of Tuesday afternoon. A few were borderline racist, a couple were about boobs, and others still veered way off-topic after someone said, “Houston and surrounding areas are relatively poorly-educated places where people aren't seeking 'smarter' music.” The whole thread is highly entertaining, and eventually we managed to extract a few nuggets of real insight.
Corporate radio is like light beer. Someone who is interested in beers will think it's cheap and tasteless, but it's drinkable and available for the other 95%. (Szalkow)
Houston radio sucks because we're one of the largest markets that's not also an industry seat. Cool radio stations are generally the same as test-marketing, and you don't test market with a population this large. (mgbesq)
Because terrestrial radio is, in 99% of cities, a complete fucking wasteland, and Houston is no exception. (ubermonkey)
not sure if radio or music industry just went to shit, maybe a little bit of both. the movie industry went down too. if you think about it the american arts have been in decline since the corporate take over of the country. corporations tell americans to work on computers and forget about the arts. well, when you do that you get lower quality artists and also listeners. (SeabrookMiglla)
The way we see it, a listening diet composed exclusively of commercial FM stations in 2015 is like listening only to music released by the major record labels. It's certainly possible, but in this day and age, pretty foolish because of the sheer number of other options available. In fact, also on that thread, several other Reddit commenters claimed to have tuned out local commercial radio entirely in favor of NPR, Pandora, Spotify or even streaming a favorite station from back home via the Interwebs. That sounds a lot more reasonable to us.
Besides, it's not like corporate radio is really all that bad. It's just limited in what it is trying to accomplish; namely, sell advertising and lull listeners into suggestible sleep-comas as they inch along the West Loop or 290. Okay, never mind: It’s terrible. True, some corporate stations are more palatable than others — with Houston’s rap and R&B FMs at the better end of the spectrum, pop and country somewhere in the middle, and rock squarely bringing up the rear — but there is also great FM radio in Houston; it's just not directly out in the open. Left unsaid are the wealth of quality, locally based HD and streaming options (we'll get to that in another article), but for now let's just focus on the three FM outlets where the air staff still has a say in what gets played, where the music still matters and — not coincidentally — often offer up the most engaging and fun listening experiences in town.
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Turning the dial from all the way to the left, first comes KACC, which one Redditor dubbed “the only station that gets it.” Playing rock from the '60s through the 2010s in a hits-free environment, the so-called “Gulf Coast Rocker” is stocked to the gills with music that has long slipped off commercial radar. Two songs we heard back to back Tuesday afternoon, Pink Floyd's “Learning to Fly” and Cracker's “Low,” were both fairly big in their day, but now KACC is the only station in town that will even touch them; plus lots more besides, including plenty of acts from both the region and the Houston area. True, it could be better: limited airbreaks mean listeners sometimes have to be pretty music-savvy to recognize what they’re hearing, and some of the PSAs can get pretty bizarre; we heard one Tuesday in which a guy kept saying, “I'm having a stroke” over and over again. But despite its (minor) faults, KACC is seldom boring. It even airs high-school football games. How awesome is that?
Next we come to KPFT, perhaps the only FM station in Houston that truly grasps what an eclectic community it serves. Although the station still struggles to make ends meet during its pledge drives, it scored a huge moral victory last year when its new 100,000-watt transmitter signed on, instantly providing a giant boost in terms of reach (if not quite revenue just yet). Heavily weighted toward talk and public affairs in the mornings and evenings, KPFT’s music specialty shows are so well-researched and lovingly curated they’re almost like living organisms. Look no further than tonight’s three-hour tribute to Houston rapper and DJ Zin, former host of the Damage Control and Sounds of Soul shows who was tragically killed in a car accident last Sunday in Denver. This is a station that understands its role in the community as deeply as it understands how it draws its identity from the members of that community. Or, in a city as big as Houston, communities.
Speaking of moral victories, they don’t come much bigger than KTRU’s return to the FM airwaves last fall. After Rice’s student-run station had the rug unceremoniously yanked out from under it when it was sold to the University of Houston system half a decade ago, its staff and supporters never gave in. While broadcasting from one of KPFT’s HD frequencies, they eventually raised the necessary funds and signed the necessary paperwork to get a new license and the power turned on at KTRU’s new home, 96.1 FM. Never mind that it’s a low-power frequency; after what they’ve been through, the people at KTRU have at least 100,000 watts of soul, easily. And while KPFT may come pretty close, KTRU sits unchallenged as a champion of local musicians and a certain mode of independent thinking that represents the best of the Houstonian character. That never really went away when KTRU was off FM, but you can really feel it now that it’s back.
So those who hear only overplayed hits and too many commercials when they turn on Houston radio just aren’t listening closely enough. But they should also know that things may not always be like this, either. According to some industry reports, one of the main villains in this ongoing drama, IHeartMedia a.k.a. Clear Channel — owner of Houston’s much-maligned The Buzz, among other stations — is currently about two steps away from Chapter 11. Houston’s corporate-radio landscape could look a lot different in five years from the way it does today. But for the time being, Marconi’s invention may be graying around the temples, and locally it may have been used in some pretty unimaginative ways lately, but that’s no reason to think that Houston radio can’t also be vibrant, challenging and exciting. Because on a happy few spots around the dial, it already is.