"Houston radio sucks." You hear that truism everywhere you go. Google that unique phrase, and you get no fewer than 44 hits, and that doesn't count all the people who share the sentiment if not the identical phrasing of it.
But is it true? Does it in fact suck? All of it, or just most or some of it? If it does, why? Can it be saved, and how could this come about?
Armed with these and more questions, I decided to embark on an experiment: I would isolate myself and listen to the radio for 24 straight hours.
Not to the same station, mind you, but to all of the radio, or as much of it as I could get to. I would go through all the stations in turn, and with rare exceptions, I would linger at no station for less than two minutes or more than five. And there would be no other external sensory stimuli -- no TV, no CDs, no computer, no reading material, no solitaire, no crossword puzzles. No going out for food. Just me and my Philips jambox and the four walls.
I soon realized that I would have no choice but to do it in a motel. My office at the Press was out of the question -- I can't get AM in there. Also, I have two children and a wife at home -- too many distractions. So a motel it would be, and after a moment's thought, I settled on Grant's Palm Court Inn on South Main, an inexpensive but lovingly maintained Route 66-style hostelry just across the street from Reliant Stadium. I found out that it was for a time the favored H-town home of Elvis Presley, so I requested room 123, the King's old digs. A wee-hours visitation from the ghost of Elvis could come in handy.
So, on Thursday, January 20, 2005 -- Inauguration Day, as it happened -- I headed over to Fiesta for provisions. I bought some anti-nausea syrup just in case the tribulation made me physically ill. I loaded up on caffeine pills, a four-pack of Red Bull and a small jar of instant espresso. And leaving nothing to chance, your lapsed Catholic scribe also bought a candle to St. Jude, patron of lost causes. Next, I walked over to Antone's and picked up a stack of various poor boys, and then I headed back across the parking lot at the crack of ten and picked up a fifth of vodka.
Thus armed, I unlocked the door to the Elvis suite at the Palm Court and, at 10:17 a.m., I lit my candle to St. Jude, picked up a pen and a legal pad, switched on my radio and went to work.
So, does Houston radio suck? Is there hope? Would I shamble out of the Palm Court tomorrow at 10:17 a.m. a broken man, a gibbering lunatic? Could St. Jude save the day? Read on, and find out.
KTRH/740 AM J.P. Pritchard and Lana Hughes are interviewing John Taylor, University of St. Thomas politics and government professor, about the imminent inaugural speech. "Do these things ever come back to haunt people?" Hughes asks. "No," Taylor chuckles. "They are usually full of platitudes." A prescient guy, that Taylor.
KPRC/950 AM Syndicated conservative talker Glenn Beck is in rare form. He mentions that some leftists had launched a campaign for a national "No-Spend Day" to protest the inauguration. "I just want to go out and buy gallons and gallons of gas so the money goes straight to an oil company," he sneers, "and then just leave the car running all day." Are all these guys stone-cold sociopaths, or just this one?
KCOH/1430 AM The last of the Mohicans, the only locally programmed, locally hosted mixed music and talk station in town, KCOH is local to the point of navel-gazing -- it's not so much Houston-centric as it is South Side/Third Ward-centric, and that's definitely not a bad thing. Right now, though, it sounds as right-wing as some of the other Red State outposts on the dial. Host Michael Harris is interviewing another of the station's hosts, the Reverend Lisa Berry-Dockery, who is also a minister at Kirbyjon Caldwell Windsor Village United Methodist Church. The topic is the Reverend Caldwell, who was probably the most prominent Houstonian in America on this day. At the 2001 inaugural, Caldwell had outraged multiculturalists by closing his benediction by invoking "the name that's above all other names, Jesus, the Christ." Would he do the same this year? Harris wanted to know. And what kind of poorly mannered boor would have a problem with that anyway? Berry-Dockery's not gonna cross swords with her boss on this one: "If you get me to come speak at your event, there's two things I'm gonna talk about: Jesus and black folks," she says. Talk veers to Kerry-bashing. What had he ever done for blacks? Why was he not voting to confirm Condoleezza Rice? "He has that patrician attitude," Harris opines in his silky-smooth purr of a voice.
KIKK/650 AM KIKK-A** Talk 650 offers a succession of syndicated shock jocks cracking wise and spinning recorded comedy bits. It's anchored by Howard Stern, whose sidekick Robin rips-and-reads an item from the New York Post about an aging groupie's tell-all book. Seems the groupie told Spin that Huey Lewis was hugely endowed. Peter Frampton, on the other hand, had an inapt first name.
KSBJ/89.3 FM This is the "God listens" station. If that's true, He could never get a job at my record company, 'cause right now, He is listening to a truly hideous song -- a whiny-voiced nerd intoning lines like "I give You my life, take it and make it Yours" as drecky '80s-style hair-flipping glam-metal billows.
KTRH The first rumblings of the inaugural speech. "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in our world." Looks like professor Taylor was right about the platitudes.
KLOL/101.1 FM, Mega 101 Easily the most thrilling new music on the dial, and the best thing Clear Channel Radio has done here, this is the new outlet for reggaetón, Latin hip-hop and dance pop. Right now, they're playing Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina." According to a Spanish-speaking friend of mine, the chorus to this bumping reggaetón is about a woman begging her boyfriend to give her his "gasolina," which is Spanish slang for sperm.
KTHT/97.1 FM, Country Legends Conway Twitty croons "Rest Your Love on Me Awhile." Not a horrible song, but Cox, the owners of this station, pissed away a golden opportunity here. When Country Legends debuted, it shot straight to the top country slot. A slow slide set in thereafter. There is only one DJ on the station -- the rest of the week, Country Legends is simply a jukebox, one that spits out the same lame songs way too often. ("Hello Country Bumpkin" once an hour, it seems.) If Cox had given this station even a little TLC -- hired some old-school country DJs, involved the listeners a little, played less country-pop pap -- it coulda been a contender.
KHMX-96.5 FM, the Mix "Your Body Is a Wonderland." But "The Mess" is not. The slogan of this sprawling jumble of soft rock, soft R&B and soft pop should be "The Mix -- we play Peter Gabriel, Genesis and Phil Collins."
KHJZ/95.7 FM, the Wave This "smooth jazz" station spins an awful lot of stuff that even the most generous music fan would have trouble calling jazz: Simply Red, the Police and Sade, whose "Ordinary Love" is playing now.
KTBZ/94.5 FM, the Buzz "Houston's New Music Alternative" is spinning Crossfade's "Cold," and it sounds like more of the same awful sludge-rock with whiny vocals by some over-caffeinated, post-rehab paint-huffer who fronts all these other bands the Buzz is determined to force down our throats as the real "here and now" of rock. This music? She is not good.
KKRW/93.7 FM, the Arrow Over the last couple of years, Clear Channel's somnolent classic rock station has shown fitful signs of life. They've been taking more requests and doing more promotions, such as the one they are in now, which is an alphabetical run-through of their catalog. Jimi Hendrix's blazing "Stone Free" plays on my first visit -- and it's certainly welcome to hear this somewhat unusual selection of the master's work. (There's been a new development on the rock-radio front. See Racket, page 63.)
KTRU/91.7 FM, Rice Radio. Mates of State's "Along for the Ride" plays. Now this really is alternative.
KPRC Rush Limbaugh wafts in on a fanfare of brass and drums, and after sneering a bit at Kerry, he turns his attention to Caldwell's benediction. He plays a clip and then chortles his way back on the air. "Ah, yes," he says, before lapsing into French. "What a pièce de résistance! What a prayer delivered by a black preacher!" He ludicrously overemphasizes the word "black."
KKBQ/92.9 FM, the New 93Q Country "52 minutes of Q Country music" commences with SheDaisy's "Come Home Soon," a dreadful song about a lonely, nervous housewife whose husband is in Iraq. "I know that we're together even though we are far apart" is about as deep as the lyrics delve into what has to be an awful situation. And it takes a war to give this innocuous pop-country pap something like gravitas.
The Wave Donna McKenzie's sultry, dulcet tones are at odds with the fare she says is coming next: a "Wave four-pack" including music by James Ingram and Dave Koz. I take the promise of this syrupy miasma as a threat and whiz off up the dial.
KBXX/97.9 FM, the Box The old-school hour comes to the rescue. A DJ mixes down "The Humpty Dance" into A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhyme." I do a little Humpty Dance of my own in front of the mirror. Tribe has played the resurrector and given the dead some life. Why is this not a format here?
KRBE/104.1 FM Usher clone Mario croons "Let Me Love You." I don't dig most of the stuff KRBE plays, but I applaud their color-blind programming. Most stations still won't mix in hip-hop with other music, or if they do, it's inevitably the Beastie Boys. KRBE isn't afraid to bounce all over the color line, and even if I find a lot of the pop on there to be crap, I'm not the target audience.
KHPT/106.9 FM, the Point Here, "There's Always Something There to Remind Me" of how badly the '80s sucked. The Point needs to get real. They need to start spinning some of the stuff that people loved about the '80s -- the Cure, the Smiths, Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, the Ramones, New Order, even old-school rap -- instead of the crap we simply endured. Nobody wants to hear Men at Work or Men Without Hats these days. And nobody at the Point seems to know or care that the cool '80s bands are much-echoed in the cool rock of today. Does the Point honestly think they attract more fans by playing "Lucky Star," "Tainted Love" or "Owner of a Lonely Heart" than they would by mixing in Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, Modest Mouse or Interpol?
KLDE/107.5 FM, Oldies 107.5 Right now, Oldies is in a request hour and playing "To Sir with Love," which is followed by Santana's "Change Your Evil Ways." All told, this station is almost as bad as the Point. It has an unhealthy obsession with never-had-it bands like Herman's Hermits and Gary Puckett, he of the creepily pedophile-like song catalog ("Young Girl Get Out of My Life," "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon").
KSEV/700 AM, the Voice In Houston, even the medical shows have a conservative slant. Here is Dr. Stephen F. Hotze's Health and Wellness Solutions show, the slogan: "If you're sick and tired of being sick and tired, call us." The good Dr. Hotze isn't in today, but he phones in from Washington and reports on the inaugural. "It was an incredible experience," he enthuses to his proxies. "Bush spoke to the overarching goal of the United States: delivering freedom here and all over the world. There were some protesters there. They sprayed something on the cops and the cops got 'em. It was so exciting!" The night before the inaugural, Hotze says, he had the privilege of dining with Tom DeLay at "a very intimate gathering of about 30 or 40 of us." He also attended the Black Tie and Boots Ball. "Hey," he says to his sub, "have you ever heard of Clay Black?" "Uh, Clint Black? Clay Walker?" the host falters. "Yeah. He was the lead guy there at the Black Tie and Boots Ball. It's so fun up here! We sang the national anthem and 'Faith of Our Fathers!' It was really stirring! I wish y'all could be here!" "We do, too," say the hosts, and you can just tell they mean it. Hotze then talks about Caldwell's benediction. "Reverend Caldwell -- that black preacher from Houston -- did a wonderful job. He said 'in the name of Jesus' and everything! It was powerful, stirring, biblical stuff!" And so on. Frankly I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired of it all.
KWWJ/1360 AM, Gospel Gravel-voiced Pastor E.W. Wilcox of the Bible Days Revival Church preaches about love. "There ought to be a hurricane of love in the congregation," he thunders. "You should love even the unlovable." Amen to that, brother!
Q Country Tim McGraw's "Back When" plays. The chorus goes like this: "Back when a hoe was a hoe / Coke was a Coke / And crack's what you were doing / When you were cracking jokes I miss back when." As for me, I miss the days "back when" Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn saw to it that crap like this wasn't on the radio. Trying to heed Pastor Wilcox's words trying trying I can't do it. Tim McGraw is really unlovable.
The Buzz Ripped-off Hendrix licks usher in Pearl Jam's "Yellow Ledbetter." Sounds like the Buzz is trying to give equal time to non-English speakers -- after all these years I still can't understand a word of Eddie Vedder's lyrics.
KHCB/105.7 FM "Encouraging, comforting and teaching 24 hours a day! The KHCB Network!" Blah.
KTRU The Kinks' "Lola" winds down as Ted Leo launches himself into "Under the Hedge." Now that encourages, comforts and teaches me.
KTRH New afternoon host and Houston's would-be Oprah Debra Duncan wants to know if the inauguration cost too much money. She cites all the kids who could have gotten shots, all the Humvees that need armor. "And he's having this huge party. It seemed kinda wrong, but then I saw footage of the White House and Capitol at dawn, and I thought, 'You know what, this is my country.' " And after all, Duncan and a guest add, the Brits foot the bill for infinitely more pageantry. "The royals have cars, planes and castles," Duncan says. What's more, she implies that unlike us Americans, the enslaved peasants in the UK -- no doubt fearing that the queen will have them clapped in the Tower of London -- lack the freedom to even grumble about the opulence of their absolute monarchs. "We're so lucky we live in a country where we can even talk about this," she solemnly intones.
The Voice To hear Bill O'Reilly tell it, you'd think he grew up in a crack house in the South Bronx instead of on Long Island. He blabs on about all the obstacles he has overcome: how his old homies are all working stiffs now, how he had to move all the time, how the "American infrastructure offered [him] a stairwell." "And now I have money and I can do what I want. And I have power -- I've got bad guys terrorized all over the earth. Money I don't care about. I walked away from a lot of money, and that takes What does it take?"
"This is a family show," his assistant mock-scolds.
"Chutzpah," O'Reilly says. "That's what it takes."
Huh-huh-huh. He said "chutzpah." Heh-heh-heh. That rhymes with "loofah."
The Buzz God-awful modern rock: Breaking Benjamin's "So Cold." "Show me how defenseless you really are," the singer whines to the requisite sludge-tars and whining tool of a singer. It's joyless music full of apelike solemnity, lyrics that are clichéd when they aren't downright stupid, talentless playing and a complete lack of interesting rhythms. The leaden beats really stun me. Where are today's Keith Moons, John Bonhams and Ginger Bakers, hell even a Neil Peart or two? No wonder I've been digging so much hip-hop, reggaetón and cumbia these past few years.
Country Legends Merle Haggard rattles off some of the "things [he] learned in a hobo jungle" and sings "I Take a Lot of Pride in Who I Am." Ah, Hag-dog, take me away.
KILT-AM, SportsRadio 610 Rich Lord, keen as ever, picks up an interesting irony from The Jim Rome Show. While Rome was interviewing reformed mobster Mike Franzese about the dangers of gambling to youths, the station was running one spot after another for the ESPN poker drama Tilt.
KTRH New KTRH drive-time talk host Chris Baker takes on the Safe-Clear towing controversy. He's against it because he supports property rights and he has compassion for the poor. And then he tears into Councilwoman Toni Lawrence, whom he quoted as saying (paraphrasing here) that those who couldn't afford a tow shouldn't go on the freeway. "That's just drunk with power!" he roars. "Maybe at her next fund-raiser she could just hand out little pieces of cake! We need a political enema in this town." With visions of a giant hose sticking out of the bowels of City Hall dancing in my radio-addled brain, up the dial I went.
KACC/89.7 FM, the Gulf Coast Rocker A hidden gem for lovers of pure, unadulterated rock, Alvin Community College's station follows the Doobies' overfamiliar "China Grove" with the Wallflowers' "Three Marlenas." Nice variety, kids. This is one of those stations that choice-loving preacher could have been talking about. It's good rock radio, full of surprises but not as liable as KTRU to slip into intentionally hideous caterwauling.
KTRU Which is just what they're playing now: some blatting horns around a female "singer." KTRU can be the most frustrating station in town -- you'll hear ten minutes of great stuff, then that will be followed by ten minutes of pompous sub-Yoko Ono avant-garde noise that the DJ thinks will impress some girl in his chemistry class. Then there's the classic mumbling college rock jocks On hearing one of these guys drone his way through a break a year ago, John Henry Lomax, my then-seven-year-old son, said, "What is with this guy? Is he new?"
KODA/99.1 FM, Sunny 99 "Houston's Official At-Work Station" strikes a rare vein of gold with Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life." Nice cut, but the rest of the time Sunny sounds like it was especially formulated by white-coated experts to soothe heavily medicated inmates at a hospital for the criminally insane. And to think, right now this is the No. 1-rated station in Houston! Kinda makes me nervous.
KPFT Much of KPFT's local programming has been preempted today in favor of syndicated inaugural coverage from other Pacifica stations. Now we're with KPFK out of Los Angeles. There's a phone interview with investigative reporter Greg Palast. "Most Americans know he was lying, and they're okay with that," he says scornfully. "This election was not about American bravery -- it was about American cowardice. We were all scared that someone would come over here and get us, or worse, that boys would kiss boys."
The Arrow The alphabetical rock-a-thon has reached the T's, and thus we get Cream's "Tales of Brave Ulysses." With 18 hours to go, I feel that beleaguered Greek's pain. Tiny purple fishes are running laughing through my fingers, too.
KPRC A guy rings in from Oregon and tells syndicated right-wing snarler Michael Savage that he is shocked by what the gays in Portland are getting away with. Boys kissing boys! "I'm appalled by what I see here," he says. "Homosexuals are out to destroy themselves and the entire human race!" "Gays have every right to destroy themselves if they want to," Savage says -- mildly, by his standards. "The problem is, AIDS has a high social cost." Immediately after that, KPRC plays an ad for an AIDS walk the station is sponsoring. Give Savage time -- he'll get angrier.
KPRC Less than an hour later, Savage is already starting to simmer. "Liberalism is a mental disorder," he hisses. "The Taliban collapses brick walls on gays, and yet you have gay commies out there who love the Taliban." Commies? What is this, 1963?
KTRH Chris Baker is barking at a woman caller. "Did you not like the president's message of freedom?" "I did," she says. "But what about Iraq? He didn't even mention it." Her accent is a deep East Texas drawl. "A reporter called it a disastrous debacle, and ah agree," she adds. Baker disagrees, and asks her why she thinks we're over there. "We're there for awl," the woman says flatly. "He didn't attack us, there were no WMD, they didn't do 9/11 " "Well, hoo-kaaay," Baker sighs, as if the woman just told him that JFK was assassinated by Adolf Hitler and Joe Stalin was on the grassy knoll.
Mega 101 A spindly reggaetón remix of Snoop's "Drop It Like It's Hot" plays. It's splendid, as ornate as the original was minimalist. Puerto Rican rap hero Tego Calderon drops a superb guest verse. The remixes here alone are worth the price of admission, even if you're not Latino.
KRBE And it seems that reggaetón is already closing in on crossover success. Here, on the city's pop station, is Christina Milian's "Pop That Thing," an English-language reggaetón.
105.7 What's this? A radio drama? My narrative-starved ears perk up, as a mother and father leaf through their photo albums. Boy, they agree, the kids sure grow up fast, don't they? Mom's been having trouble sleeping lately, but she finally catches some Z's. Or does she? She has a strange dream, or is it a dream? The backyard is full of kids she doesn't recognize. She asks for their names -- they don't have any. She shoos them away, and they all go, all that is, except for a little girl named Tilly, whom Mom invites inside and plies with sandwiches. Tilly peppers Mom with lots of wide-eyed, innocent questions. Meanwhile, Dad is away in town. Seems a couple of weeks ago, he and Mom were at a funeral, and Mom got agitated when she walked by a grave for a single-monikered kid named, you guessed it, Tilly. Dad goes to the funeral home and asks the mortician about the grave, and the mortician spills the beans. Tilly, he says, was a late-term abortion. Even though she was aborted, the mother insisted on having a funeral for the tiny, mangled corpse. And with that, Focus on the Family mullah Dr. James Dobson interrupts the proceedings and says we can hear the remainder of this powerful play later. (Evidently, The Twilight Zone has gotten right with God.) For the first time, I splash a little vodka in my Red Bull.
KCOH A rollicking Step Rideau zydeco stomper is followed by Beyoncé's "Naughty Girl." Two local tunes in a row! From different genres! On commercial radio! And only one of them by a superstar! KCOH rules.
KPRC At last, Savage is on full boil. "If these pieces of human o-fall come to power, yours will be one of the skulls in the mountain they will build!" A caller from Houston rings in to say he was a gay for Bush and that he wants to talk about gay marriage. "I'm not interested in gay marriage," Savage snaps. "You deviants -- nobody bothers you in your bath-house bacchanals! Why do you now assault the family!" The caller says something about separation of church and state. "You're not gonna confuse me like you do your dupes in the gay bars! The socialist agenda -- part of the plan is to break the family. It's in Karl Marx's manifesto. You gays who want to marry are communist dupes. Don't you understand that I stand for your freedom, and the commies want to put you in a concentration camp?"
KTRU I come in at the changing of the guard between a soul-funk show and an Americana one -- Don Covay's soul stew is followed by John Hartford's harmonizing bluegrass. Thank God for KTRU.
The Box More local music -- Slim Thug's slammin' "Like a Boss." No mainstream commercial station does more for the local scene than the Box. Good on 'em.
KPRC I can't tear myself from the clutches of Savage Nation. Now he plays a sound bite of a gay activist protesting the inaugural. "Shut up, you toilet paper with a mouth!" Savage screams. (Keep in mind, this is the AIDS walk station.) Then he plays a tape of Michael Berg -- father of Nick Berg, the telecom businessman beheaded in Iraq. The elder Berg lays the blame for his son's death on Bush's doorstep. "He's a lifetime communist/socialist, I can tell," Savage opines after Berg says a few things. "He's a psychopath, I can tell," Savage says after Berg says a bit more. And as Berg wraps up, Savage concludes by saying, "He's just a broken man, an example of the human refuse that fills the streets today." I too can spot a psycho when I see one. Bonsoir, Monsieur Savage!
KTRH GOP patsy Alan Colmes is away from the mike, but fear not, vast right-wing conspiracy, his replacement -- a guy named Major Garrett -- is just as wimpy. Unlike on the conservative shows, Garrett lays out both sides of the "Did the inaugural cost too much?" issue. The first caller says he supports Bush 100 percent. Wow, this liberal radio could topple the president! A Canadian trucker calls in next and says he's a liberal but that he doesn't let that fact slip in the truck stops. "They would say I'm in the party of faggots," he says. Then he says that he doesn't think Bush is smart enough to be a cynic. Instead of scoffingly agreeing, Garrett waffles. "Hmm Interesting," he mumbles.
KPFT At least you can trust the authenticity of the leftist talk at KPFT, which has returned to local programming. They're still stuck on the inauguration, though. A tipsy woman calls in from San Francisco and doles out mad props to the locals here, to whom she has been listening on the Web. "You guys were the only one of the five [Pacifica] sisters that didn't contribute to suicide today," she merrily slurs. "You were really funny." She adds that she has joined the movement to help Vermont secede from the Union and then plugs some sort of Internet gizmo she has invented. Her buzz is infectious -- I have another vodka and Red Bull to toast Free Vermont and the fact that I have passed the 12-hour mark.
Country Legends Waylon's "Bob Wills Is Still the King" is followed by Anne Murray's "Could I Have This Dance for the Rest of my Life." They almost get it.
The Buzz At last, something tuneful: the Killers' "Smile Like You Mean It." Hey, I've checked in only 12 times over the past 12 hours.
KPFT "Uncompromisingly liberal" local talk show host Glen Urbach lives up to his self-billing. He weighs in with a sharp few takes on the day's haps -- he notes that Condoleezza Rice forgot to put her membership on Chevron's board of directors on her résumé, and tears into Senator Joe Biden for going soft on her. (Any of you commercial stations looking for a tough, local liberal host? Here is your man.) Tipsy Frisco calls in again and repeats that KPFT was the funniest of the five sisters, though this time she doesn't plug her Net invention or Vermont secession.
KCOH And so we enter the wee hours. One of the things I always loved about radio long ago was how it was an antidote to post-midnight loneliness. It was cool to have that voice nearby, one that came from somewhere in town, not some Big Radio nerve center. Today, that's almost gone. On the AM dial, KCOH is alone. Right now, as it does every weeknight at this time, it's playing the slow-burning R&B/funk jam "Return of the Mack," which normally segues into Paris "The Prophet" Eley's overnight show, easily the best local commercial overnight radio. Tonight, Eley's away, and the song fades into a soul-blues number.
KTRU Scott Walcott signs off his excellent underground rock show with a tune by the Riverboat Gamblers. News programs follow from the national news services of every country from Australia to Germany to Africa.
KPFT Rad Rich informs his listeners about upcoming shows and even house parties. They follow with Iggy and the Stooges. At last, some dangerous rock.
KTSU/90.9 FM One of the station's many excellent specialty shows -- this one playing modern reggae and soca -- brings a little Caribbean sunshine to the long, black night ahead.
All over the dial Save for the music on KCOH, KPFT and KTSU, there is no locally based nonreligious English-language programming on the dial. It's a wasteland of preselected music and syndicated yakkers of the sports, conservative and, in George Noory's case (KTRH), raving-monster-loony varieties. Outside my window, a heavy fog envelops South Main, much like the one in my head.
SportsRadio 610 The Outdoors Show fires up, and I love it. Hosted by a gruff good ol' boy, the emphasis is on fishing. Various Hank Hill sound-alikes call in to say that the specks are biting in Port Lavaca and there's a good redfish run going in Matagorda. Occasionally a bait-camp woman phones up, her vocal chords stained by decades of Virginia Slims, and waxes poetic about the wind conditions in Palacios. It's reassuring, infinitely so. The Texas coast is waking up, the fish are biting, and I've got just six more hours to go.
The Arrow I bust them cheating on their alphabetical thing: Lynyrd Skynyrd's "The Ballad of Curtis Loew" plays, just as it did at about 6:15 the night before. Liars!
Mega 101 A new crisis! Between airings of Tilly, James Dobson of Focus on the Family has determined that SpongeBob is gay! Mega's hosts -- Chico and Rascal -- play it down. They say that only homophobes think that way. Chico and Rascal go on to call the FCC "devils" and "the evil empire." Who woulda thought a Clear Channel station would sound so much like KPFT?
The Voice Newish morning host Edd Hendee is evidently a Savage Nation fan. He too plays the Berg sound bites and then calls Berg "a pathetic, broken man."
KCOH Ever the contrarian, where other stations have a morning zoo, KCOH has this, a talk show segment about death sponsored by a mortuary.
The Arrow Dean and Rog are discussing the bizarre story of the pregnant woman who hopped in the back of her truck just as it was being repossessed, and then went into labor. They throw open the phones -- the first caller says that you have the right to shoot a repo man if you catch him taking your car. Thankfully, the second caller sets him -- and all of Houston -- straight.
KRBE Urgent Paris Hilton updates! Paris got on a fire station's radio and cussed! Paris stole a copy of her sex tape from some guy! Paris's e-mail was hacked, and boy is she pissed! "She cares more about her e-mail being hacked than about the whole world seeing her do the nasty!" a host marvels.
KTSU The usual Friday fare: excellent soul and funk oldies. Though I'd rather hear Hugh Masekela's original of "Grazin' in the Grass" and not the inferior vocal version they spin, they follow it with some deep-catalog Curtis Mayfield. Fridays on KTSU are some of the best programming on the dial all week.
KTRU As a service for the blind, a stern-voiced man reads the Houston Chronicle aloud.
SportsRadio 610 Texans General Manager Charley Casserly is engaging in rapier-sharp repartee with morning hosts John Granato and Lance Zierlein. Casserly says the Texans are looking to fill some holes in the defense in the upcoming NFL draft. "If you play good defense, you'll be a better team," Granato says. "Yep," Casserly agrees. "If the other guys don't score, they can't win There's some real wisdom for you this morning." Maybe I'm just delirious, but this strikes me as the funniest thing I've heard in the last 22-and-a-half hours.
KIKK-A** Talk Stern divulges that James Brown plans to have his dream ass surgically installed on his wife. Every time he says "ass," a producer plays a fart noise.
KPRC Local host Pat Gray is talking to a correspondent embedded with the marines in Iraq. The correspondent says the bad Iraq news is coming from a sensationalist media. Mayhem sells, he says, even on Fox News. The truth, he says, is that "We are winning, there will be an election, and the roads are passable." Grievously wounded Sugar Land marine corporal Casey Owens is put on the line. He sounds awkward and tongue-tied, and as Gray and the correspondent fawn over him, he sounds like he'd rather be talking to his fellow marines.
The Voice Rock-ribbed conservative pundit Laura Ingraham -- possessor of perhaps the unloveliest voice in radio -- plays a tape of a shrill liberal woman organizing fellow lefties at the inaugural. "Boy, she really has that warmth you look for," Ingraham says. Pot, meet kettle.
KCOH Morning host Michael Harris is playfully engaged in a KCOH perennial: the division of light- and dark-skinned blacks. "If you take a look at a big ol' hunk o' chocolate like me and say, 'Yeah," he tells a female caller, "I'll say, 'Wassup, baby!' "
KPFT On Democracy Now!, Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, is at a rally tearing into the Bush administration. "While these people party, there will be more bloodshed," she says. "Millions of people are in harm's way." Just another example of Savage's pathetic, broken human refuse, I guess.
Oldies 107.5 At last, Oldies is spinning something I like: the Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together." I will! I will! I wiii-iilllll be done with this in 15 minutes!
The Mix "Save me from this prison, Lord help me get away." So runs the first line of Los Lonely Boys' "Heaven." What better broadcast to end on than this? I quit. So it was eight minutes early. Sue me.
So Houston radio -- does it suck or what? Well, yes and no. The Anglo-oriented rock stations -- the Arrow when it's not in a promotion, the Buzz, Oldies 107.5 and the Point -- are all terrible, it's true. And so are Q Country and KILT.
One reason why is that our city is so huge and so scattered. If you own a radio station, where do you put your transmitter? Unless yours is one of the precious few powerful blowtorch signals, you can't cover the city. Put it on the far northwest side and you lose Clear Lake; put it down south and you lose the northern suburbs. And if you cater too much to the burbs, you lose the sophisticates inside the Loop.
And make no mistake, Houston radio is all about the burbs. National radio consultants come down here, host their focus groups and determine that we are a bunch of rustic SUV-driving simpletons begging to hear more Sting, more Sade, more Chesney, more Yes and more Nickleback clones. We don't want to be challenged by new music -- leave that to the cool kids in Austin and L.A. We don't want to hear rap and rock side by side. What we want is radio that looks like our neighborhood: a deed-restricted, master-planned, cul-de-sac'd purgatory where nothing bad happens but nothing much else does either. Meanwhile, satellite radios positively fly off the shelves back here as people walk away from the whole mess.
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Focus groups don't work for radio. People don't know what they like until they hear it a few times. Sure, you can test new music on them in a focus group, but that's no way to hear new stuff. You need to hear it at home, in your car or in a club. And relying on focus groups over a period of years -- as big radio has done recently -- is going to ensure that fewer and fewer new artists get on the air.
So, yeah, most big Houston radio sucks. I think KRBE does a decent job, with pop, and the Party, Mega and the Box are exciting to listen to, mainly because mainstream hip-hop is in a far better place right now than mainstream rock, if such can even be said to exist right now.
But if you look elsewhere, there's plenty of stuff on there that doesn't suck. There's lots of good ethnic stuff: In the afternoons, not one but two AM stations (1180 and 1560) play East Indian music, and the Spanish-language AM 850 has a fun tropical feel, not to mention the ranchera on 1230 AM and the Spanish Top 40 on XO FM 107.9. As for rock, Alvin Community College's Gulf Coast Rocker is a better mix of classic and new rock than KLOL ever was, KTRU spins the edgy modern stuff, and KPFT's overnight shows are dynamite. KCOH is one of the last real community-oriented stations in America, not to mention of the last black-run blues stations around, and KTSU's mix of hard and smooth jazz and specialty shows is a winner. Gospel 1360 plays wonderful gospel and stirring sermons, one of which comes back to me now as I write this. "The essence of freedom is choice -- we are free so that we can choose. To be a slave is to have the ultimate lack of choice. We are free people so we can choose, so as free people we must choose."
So choose. Give some of these small and ethnic stations a chance. Reprogram your presets. And if you still think it sucks, there's always satellite radio.