Ho hum, another year has come and gone, and Houston's commercial FM pop and rock radio -- both contemporary and classic -- is still, on the whole, terrible. But is Houston unique in that regard?
Hardly, says music industry watchdog group the Future of Music Coalition, who recently released a report on the state of the radio industry nationwide. The report, called "False Premises, False Promises: A Quantitative History of Ownership Consolidation in the Radio Industry," found that ownership consolidation in the radio industry since the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had led to narrow, homogenized programming and a diminishment of niche formats and public-interest shows.
Not so, claims the radio industry in a statement released through the National Association of Broadcasters. According to their research, radio has never been more diverse. They base much of that claim on numbers they say prove that there has been a veritable explosion of new formats on the box.
I called Jenny Toomey, director of the FMC (and an excellent musician), to see if she could answer the NAB's claim. Turns out she can -- most of those "new formats" they tout are just fresh applications of lipstick on the same old pigs. "This is something we identified a long time ago -- all of the data that was used to try to show that consolidation had led to more diversity was simply them thinking up new format names. It's very easy to thin-slice the exact same pie of songs under different names. We all know that 'active rock' might have very similar songs to 'classic rock.'"
And the same goes for "adult contemporary" and "hot adult contemporary" and so on. Whatever the case, Houston's rock and pop dial is very homogenized. I looked through the online playlists of the Buzz, the Arrow, the Point, the Mix, KRBE, KIOL, K-Hits and Sunny (which was then in its all-Xmas marathon), and it's easy to imagine people like U2, Lenny Kravitz, John Mayer, Eric Clapton or Los Lonely Boys playing on four or five stations of allegedly different formats at once, and bands like Queen, Aerosmith or Nickelback playing on three or four. You will also hear 3 Doors Down, the Fray, Staind, Creed, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock, Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Papa Roach, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Phil Collins/Genesis, AC/DC, Bon Jovi, the Cars, Steve Miller, Boston and the Eagles all over the dial. Not to mention Puddle of Mudd, a crappy band whose name accurately describes this mucky state of affairs.
Here's what you won't hear on the Buzz, KIOL, the Mix or Sunny -- anything local other than ZZ Top or Blue October, unless it comes in one of their special late Sunday night ghettoized shows.
And we all know how well those work. Great music needs to be surrounded by other great music. It does the Dimes, the Scattered Pages and Michael Haaga little good to be heard between feeble offerings from lunkhead bar bands from LaPorte. Local artists need the validation that comes from being heard alongside the very best music out there.
Why won't big radio play local bands? Is every working Houston band worse than Staind, Creed and Papa Roach?
Of course not. But quality has absolutely nothing to do with what gets on the radio today. Money does. And we'll leave aside the issue of payola for now, as it deserves a much wider airing than I can give in this space, and just say that getting a song on the radio in heavy rotation is expensive in time, money and savvy. "To get on the radio in any kind of meaningful way, you would have to spend at least $100,000," says Blue Corn Records director of development Greg Ellis. "You would have to donate prizes and trips for the stations to give away, hire some independent promoters, throw 'em a bunch of cash and just hope for the best."
Peter DiCola, the economist who authored the FMC report, says that consolidation has diminished the number of gatekeepers you can approach. "You can think about concentration in terms of national concentration or local concentration, but if you think about it in terms of format concentration -- who dominates which format -- as a musician, there are just fewer people out there for you to try to convince to give you a shot."
From the '50s through the '70s, when radio stations were locally owned, record labels both local and national could approach autonomous local program directors and disc jockeys and persuade them to spin their records. Maybe the radio folks would give the songs a shot because they liked them, or maybe they were just plied with enough hookers and blow -- but the point is, more people were making decisions then, and that meant more people said yes to more records, some of which became huge national hits.
Back then, and this still holds true to some extent in rap today, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, San Francisco and Detroit all had signature scenes and sounds. No more. At a recent town hall meeting about the national radio industry in Nashville, Rick Carnes of the Songwriters Guild of America put it as well as it can be put: "We used to have music everywhere that sounded like it was from somewhere," he said. "Now we have music everywhere that sounds like it's from nowhere."
The major-label record industry is dying, as is big radio, in no small part because of this homogenization. The two are locked in a deadly embrace, neither willing to change their old, rotten ways. Indeed, it seems that the major label/big radio borg is more willing to insult us further. Thought that Paris Hilton album was bad? There's plenty more where that came from.
"I've been hearing for two or three years from people in the industry now -- and they're saying this publicly now -- but you've got to be a cross-media star now for that major recording label business model to work," says DiCola. "If you're not gonna be Hilary Duff and have a movie, a fragrance and a TV show in reruns, then they aren't gonna be able to participate in enough revenue streams with you or get enough cross-promotion where you can be so ubiquitous that you can sell enough for them to bother. And the threshold for them to be able to make money is getting higher. It used to be 100,000. Now it's maybe 500,000."
So one version of the future is that we are bombarded with Lindsey Lohan and Nicole Richie albums and The TomKat Love Ballads collection. Another, more pleasant alternative is that the system collapses. As DiCola notes, neither music nor radio is apt to up and disappear anytime soon. "The optimistic heart of all this is that music is still incredibly popular. There's a lot of innovation, a lot of the new businesses going on the Web have been music-related, people wanna listen to music, people still like it. And with podcasting, webcasting and satellite radio, the idea of sequencing songs mixed with talk or public affairs content -- that idea is still popular. NPR has doubled its listenership on traditional radio in the last five years.
"So radio and music are both still popular, it's just the business model of giant radio consolidators are not."
As if we here in Houston needed telling. As the new year dawns, let's take a whiz through the FM dial and attempt to assess the state of rock and pop radio in Houston, shall we?
The Buzz has gotten a bit rougher around the edges -- it's now like a hybrid of contemporary hard rock and a hodgepodge of '90s grunge and lite metal classics sprinkled with today's indie mega-hits like the Killers -- but overall it remains a satanic black factory churning out the noxious emissions of laughingstock bands like Blink-182, Lit, P.O.D. and Seether. You can also hear a few of those bands on KLOL clone KIOL, or you could if you happen to live on the east side of town, which is the only place you can hear it.
The Mix (or the Mess, as it is known in local radio circles) still skews toward women, but it has recently moved a little more toward harder rock. Here, you will also hear grade-A horseshit Buzz bands like Staind, Creed and 3 Doors Down, but the Mix will occasionally augment that by venturing into Rascal Flatts territory. Whoop-di-damn-doo, it's a Mix of every color of crap!
Sunny 99 (or Sappy 99, as it is known at my house) will probably announce a 365-day-a-year Christmas format soon, and for its part, KRBE has been going downhill for the past couple of years.
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Now for the "classic" stations. Here, there's a rare bright spot -- the new K-Hits, 107.5 on your dial, which plays a mlange of rock, pop and soul smashes from the '60s and '70s with little regard to genre, though in that regard it doesn't come close to "Swingin' 650," KLDE-AM. (One not-so-small problem -- K-Hits is in the habit of "editing" longer songs, so don't expect to always hear the same versions of "Night Moves" and "Free Bird" you grew up on.)
Elsewhere, it's just the same ol' same ol'. The station's abysmal ratings prove it -- we've gotten "the Point" about the '80s: Cutting Crew and Men Without Hats sucked then and they suck even more now. The Arrow is a mediocre classic rock station whose music, glorious as it was when it came out, is now as unsurprising and shopworn as a Seinfeld episode you've seen five times.
Hmmm, come to think of it, that sounds like everything on the radio these days, too.