When I was in the 6th grade, I had pretty well solidified my career goal: To work in the television industry. Not in front of the camera, or even operating a camera, but in the control room or behind the scenes. Later on, this objective widened to include radio; an industry where you were both host and producer of what people heard. I’ve been told many times I have a great face for radio.
I realize that in 2014 radio is not the primary delivery method by which people are exposed to new music. There is always someone who has heard of a new music channel available for phone or laptop. But I miss those old days, and I especially miss listening to the announcers talk — what was called patter — between songs. I still go on YouTube and look up airchecks some of the original rock stations that were part of my growing up, WLS-Chicago, WNBC-New York, WOWO-Fort Wayne, WLW-Charlotte, CKLW-Detroit/Windsor, WKBW-Buffalo, WCFL-Chicago, WABC-New York, WXYZ-Detroit and some of the stations in Miami and greater Los Angeles I got to know later on.
I love listening to the DJs talk. The cadence, the rhythm, the emphasis, the seemingly endless passion. “Be the sixth caller when you hear the secret sound and you win one-hundred dollars.” My goodness. A hundred bucks. Just for calling in. (Later, I would be such a lucky caller, and won a small sailboat, but that’s another story.)
Back then, the deejays talked about the songs. The singers. The album the song was from. The studio it was recorded in. The fact they were touring and doing shows in Dayton and Cincinnati and Lansing and Bowling Green, Kentucky. I got out the atlas to find those cities. There was a song about Bowling Green and I loved the name and wanted to go there. My friends said I was a walking encyclopedia when it came to music, and much of what I knew, I knew from listening to the guys — and it was always guys back then — on the radio. Some announcers picked all their own music, too — it was the days before everything was formatted in a highrise in Nashville — and it helped that they had a love for what they were playing.
What sparked all these memories was something that happened a few days ago as we were driving home and had the radio on in the car. I realized that the DJ wasn’t talking about the albums, the songs, the music at all. One singer just got married. Another was divorcing. Two of the guys in this band were gay. Two of the girls in that band were living with two actors who were starring in a current film. Another singer is suing his neighbor. Yet another is involved in a custody suit with his ex-partner for custody of their child.
I recognize that people want their radio announcers to seem close to the stars; they want to feel that the guy playing the music is just two or three degrees of separation away from the artists he or she is playing; or that they actually met backstage at a concert or at an in-studio appearance at the station. People want to think they have a sense of intimacy to their music heroes, and today opportunities exist whereby you can, in fact, send a note to a celebrity and get an actual, personal reply. Not often but it happens.
As we kept driving, I tried to find some common interest in all the marriages and breakups and shacking up, but failed to see how this was anymore relevant to the music than the relationship status of the guy who had just changed the oil on the car, or the woman who had rung in our groceries. Just as sure as water seeks its lowest level, radio had succumbed and now could only reflect the shallowness of the broader culture. Studios? Songwriters? You’d have to read the credits, but they are buried in one-point type in the booklet that comes with the CD, if you ever actually see a physical disc for that artist at all.
Decades ago Time Magazine did a piece when “rock ‘n roll” was emerging and observed that while outwardly this was music that highlighted drums and guitars, it was more than that; it was about the clothing and the hairstyles and the attitudes. Rock culture was born. Teens put pictures of their idols on their bedroom walls. I realize that is a fact of life where music is concerned, but it strikes me that today’s kids are missing out if they listen to radio at all, or whatever is the modern equivalent for the distribution of information about the songs and the artists. It’s all about who is having sex with who.
In my younger days, I would watch Entertainment Tonight. The show was all about the movie, TV, music and publishing industries. They showed how the stunts happen, how the songs get recorded, how the contestants get on the game shows. Today, ET has morphed into a celebrity gossip show and spawned a host of imitators. Talent has been replaced by looking good.
Some parents point their kids toward Christian radio as an alternative. It’s supposed to be safe. But even there, many times the DJ patter is borrowed from Facebook and gets preoccupied with the relationships between the band members, or the number of awards that singer has received, or the fact she gets her clothing from the same designer who does more famous people. How about, “This song is based on a phrase that occurs in Psalms;” or “This group takes there name from a verse in Jeremiah;” or “This song is about a woman who was a faith hero from back in the middle ages.” Maybe those songs don’t exist anymore, either.
I have no conclusion here. Tag me under #lament. I just wish things were different both for Christian radio and the broader market, because last time I checked, radio is still out there, cars still come equipped with them, and satellite providers still include a cross-section of radio stations in their basic packages.