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The Radio Star was Never Killed

The Radio Star was Never Killed

Everyone knows the radio star was officially declared dead in August of 1981, and that the apparent cause of death was murder by video. It’s cliche now. In fact, it was cliche back then – they made a song about it which was turned into the first video showed on MTV. Eulogies were written, and the older generation of moralizers went crazy ranting about American innocence lost, and how an important art form was lost, and how blah blah blah…

I’m only two months older than MTV, so the music station and I grew up together. My parents often had it on if they wanted background noise, and I remember more than enough about the way it changed from the 80’s to the 90’s to the arguable worst network decay known to man. I remember that back then, there seemed to be legitimate reason that music video was the medium of the future and that radio was on life support and possibly terminal. Radio was supposed to die a quick and painless death, but it made a full recovery and fought its way back with a vengeance. Now if anything is in danger, it’s the video that allegedly killed radio.

Yes, that sounds pretty absurd. But think about it: When was the last time music videos were the dominant medium for discovering new music? Yes, they’re still around, and some of them are excellent. But unless you’re willing to pull yourself up from bed at some absurd hour of the day and flip on MTV while you make your morning eggs on toast, you’re not going to see them. Like every other medium, the idea of the music television station has evolved, but music stations have evolved in reverse. Whereas MTV was the trendsetting cultural juggernaut for two generations, it’s now the definition of network decay. VH1 is a glorified tabloid rag. The Box is… Well, god, I don’t even know what happened to The Box. The only stations that seem to play music videos these days are satellite spinoffs that were created to do the very thing their parent stations were first created for.

Yes, yes, there’s Youtube. Youtube is a wonderful resource full of entertaining videos, and it’s one of the most-used search engines on the internet. There’s a score of backlogged music videos on it, and a lot of live recordings of old favorite songs in case you wanted to hear those too. The problem with Youtube, though, is that all of your video hunts have to be done entirely by hand. You have to know what you want to listen to and watch, then type it into the search bar, and when it finishes playing, you’re back to square one. That means you can’t use it as background during spring cleaning unless you want to be surprised by 20 straight live versions of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” with an occasional Rascal Flatts song there to break up the monotony while you wonder how Rascal Flatts ended up on a hair band playlist.

You can see the problem there. Youtube isn’t a place where the new music rushes at you without strict command. You have to know what it is you want to hear, which can be a problem if you know the song only by the way it sounds. If you don’t know the song’s name and the artist, you have to type lyrics into Bing or Google to find those out before heading to Youtube. Basically, there’s nowhere to flip the TV to watch the videos as they get presented so you can see the video to learn the artist and the song.

When radio was forced to evolve to keep up with the times, it gave us Sirius XM. Sirius launched in 2002, and it now provides 69 channels of music and an additional 65 of talk radio about any subject you want to hear about. While the talk radio stations have commercials, the music stations don’t. They go through straight blasts of random music at all hours, and if you hear a song you like but you’ve never heard before, it’s easy to take note of the lyrics and type them into a search engine. Video stations don’t offer anything like that. Music videos can barely be considered a viable part of the mainstream now. No one anticipates new videos anymore, and when one comes out, you have to hear about it by accident.

So no, videos haven’t supplanted music the way older generations once feared they would. There are no theaters showing them, no workplaces have a TV showing random music videos, you don’t drive cars while trying to watch videos… Hell, you can’t really do much of anything while trying to watch music videos except for keeping your eyes glued to the TV set, appreciating the artistry of a well-directed video. And those aren’t coming along quite as often as they used to, either. This isn’t the 90’s anymore, where music videos that cost a million dollars so the artist could make a statement were everywhere. Most of them are just trying to to get a quick story across now. Even artists that play strong videos – Katy Perry is a notable example – aren’t as ostentatious as Madonna or Michael Jackson were.

What’s more, no one talks about the new videos they saw on whatever music video channel they preferred. Everything seems to be about whether or not you’ve heard something. There’s no controversy over music videos these days, and that’s saying something because of the sheer amount of unfiltered content from Tove Lo’s video for “Habits (Stay High),” which features the singer on a drug and sex binge which highlights the alienation she’s feeling as the narrator. The video builds to a lesbian orgy and would have caught flak in any era for that. Now it’s two years old and no one knows it’s there unless they’ve looked for Tove Lo’s video catalogue. In the meantime, artists are getting more attention when their work is played in TV commercials. (I’m looking at you, Passion Pit.)

I’m not saying music videos are done. Far from it. But the speculation that every radio artist is going to need a video presence in order to succeed is something we can now put to rest. Music videos assaulted TV for the 80’s and 90’s, and made the transition to the internet afterward. But radio came into vogue during the 1920’s and has survived everything thrown at it. The radio star is dead? Hell, that dead machine better be playing your work if you want to be a working musician.  

Radio Man

When I began packing to make my trip, I decided I wanted to make my primary eqipment as low-tech as possible. I did have to reactivate my cell phone and, as a photographer, bring my camer along. But after that, I decided against bringing my computer – although I did bring the flash drive containing my book – and I didn’t even bring my iPod along, deciding instead to bring along a small short wave radio in its place.

It seems like an antiquated concept these days, but I’m one of those weird people who still listens to and loves radio. More so than even the TV, radio was a big part of my life growing up. Every day, I started my routine listening to Larry Norton on 97 Rock, and am probably one of the few people in Buffalo who can clearly recall his days with Mark Stout. On many nights, Rick Jeaneret would lead me to dreamworld, colorfully calling Sabres games with the excitement and energy of an overcaffeinated cheetah. I would also listen to the smart, thoughtful takes on culture, events, and random happenings in the day’s news as presented by Janet Snyder and Nicholas Picholas (which the latter swears is his real name). In Chicago, with the AM dial on my main radio having apparently been mysteriously broken into by a small alien, I would turn my father’s old handheld radio into Blackhawks games and listen over headphones whenever they played a game that I wanted to hear, while I also tuned into shows like 8:48 on NPR and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR.

Radio is still a huge part of my life, and on a recent Christmas, I was delightfully surprised to be gifted with a small – almost pocket-sized – short wave radio. Since I have access to another very good main radio, though, my short wave has been relegated to secondhand duty. Here on the road, though, its been the only radio I have, and so its been getting a lot of use as of late. Its also been useful beyond anything I needed.

I sat on the Megabus and fiddled with the stations, frequently hoping to find something interesting to listen to, and get some information about the local weather in the area. Hell, I also kept tuning in to try to find out what area I was passing through. I discovered the rural farmers of Illinois have a radio network dedicated to news stories which would affect them specifically. At various spots during the trip, I found radio networks in Kankakee, Bloomington, Peoria, and Springfield as the bus drifted along Route 66. The radio was the most important thing I had at the time because with it, I could keep track of where I was, what the weather was doing, and what kind of time the bus was making. But perhaps more importantly, it allowed me to make a more personalized connection to where i was than an iPod ever could. Radio has dics jockeys, after all, who all have unique personalities and are therefore able to connect with the listeners.

There were times during the trip when I would find a station I liked and listen to it until the end of its transmition range, when my short wave would slowly fade it away as it picked up another, stronger, more localized signal. This is how I knew the bus was making progress. I kept listening and flipping through stations eagerly, trying to find some clear signal that the bus was close to where I was going. Finally, I found my location from one of the more unlikely and annoying sources available on the radio – a car sales advertisement – as the voice over made an autioneer’s fast-talking pitch at the St. Louis area. After the whole of the trip spent staring across the summits of anthills on the Great Plains, I knew the bus was definitely close.

Just over 40 miles outside of St. Louis, I was still getting clear channels from Springfield when I spotted a billboard on the road which advertised another St. Louis radio station called The Arch. This was my cue to begin flipping through more stations, and I began finding stations in St. Louis coming through clearer before the bus ran into the nastiest torrential downpour I’ve ever seen. I started to worry about having to actually walk off the bus in that shit, but the weather fortunately started clearing up, and the blue of the sky began poking increasingly larger holes into the cloud blanket which has cast itself over Illinois for most of the trip.

The rain’s letup allowed for the creation of a scene scene straight out of a cheesy movie. The terrain got a big more rugged and the bus began navigating the valley of a couple of hills which, although small, were still large enough to block off my view even though I was sitting on the top deck. When the hill receded, though, I saw a small cluster of buildings in the distance against the fire-yellow evening sky. And just to their left, in silhouette, was the unmistakable form of the famous St. Louis Arch. I set my radio aside for the rest of the trip, took out my camera, and started trying to get good pictures.

It was, to say the least, difficult from a moving bus, even though I was at the front of the top deck.