The Life and Death of Modern Radio


At first blush, it would appear that technology has supplanted the radio, in terms of listenership.  But that's only half the story.

I mentioned before that people who pine for the days of zeppelins and trolleys and trains are putting nostalgia ahead of cold, hard facts.  And the facts were, that zeppelins were little more than experimental transportation systems, that made a few demonstration flights and a few "regular" service flights, before they were deemed obsolete.  They could carry only a few dozen people, but required a crew nearly as large, if not larger. They were expensive to operate, slow, and difficult to land and secure.  Oh, and being "lighter than air" they were at the mercy of even the mildest of winds.

Trolleys are fun to ride on - in a museum setting.  But the reality was that most lost money and were taken over by municipalities as they went bankrupt, one by one.  People didn't like the hassle of having to schedule their lives around trolley schedules, and to be beholden to trolley companies that could raise fares (and still lose money).  Trains were about the same - losing money on passenger service, while people complained about the inconvenience and cost.

My Father's generation couldn't wait to get their hands on a Model-T Ford, and later, a Model-A, so they could go where they wanted to go, when they wanted to go, and often at a lower price that public transport.  The trolley and train companies made their services so odious that people leaped at the first thing that came along that was an alternative - even if sometimes the real human costs were much higher.

This same effect can be seen in almost every industry.  The American car might have supplanted the trolley and the railroad, but the foreign car supplanted the American car, even if they were initially somewhat tinny and cheap.  People were so fed up and tired of the poor craftsmanship and quality - and high prices - of American cars that they jumped at the chance to buy a Toyota.

I have watched a few old episodes of WKRP In Cincinnati, which you can stream for free on YouTube (for the time being, anyway).  Speaking of odious businesses - cable companies made their business so toxic, that people would rather stream on their phone than deal with Comcast, or Dish Network, for that matter.  Same shit, different day.

It is hard to remember, and I am sure many today were not even alive back then, but radio went through a Renaissance back in the mid- to late-70's and early 1980's.  It then went rapidly downhill.  What the heck happened?

Well, I mentioned before how radio evolved in the early part of the last century.  Starting out as a point-to-point communication system (much as the Internet was, early on) it morphed into the "Broad-Cast" model which was pioneered or at least shepherded by a young Russian immigrant named David Sarnoff.  He saw that two-way radio was expensive and what's more, kind of boring.  But a central, powerful, transmitter could blast professional entertainment on the airwaves to relatively inexpensive radio receivers in every home.  People could sit back in the evening and listen to Fibber McGee and Molly or a game show, or a live orchestra.

And until television came along, that was pretty much the model for radio - it was the talking lamp, without the lamp.  But once television penetration was nearly universal in America, radio game shows and serials and comedies went away and a new kind of radio emerged - the top 40 pop music format, with fast-talking disc jockeys, and this new music called "Rock and Roll."  It was the era of Dick Clark and Wolfman Jack.  And radio came in one flavor - AM.  Cars that came with a radio had only that option.  FM radio was an esoteric novelty that few bothered to deal with.

Even well into the 1960's, FM radios in cars were rare.  If you read old auto brochures, you will see the options were limited.  AM radio, or an AM/FM radio, or and AM/8-track.  You want AM/FM/8-track?  Don't get fancy buddy!  It wasn't until the 1970's that FM radio became a thing.

And early on, FM wasn't much of a thing.  There were scratchy Public Radio stations that barely came in.  There was the "Classical Music" station that was actually commercial (not public) and took advantage of the quiet of FM to play music that had a lot of quiet in it.

About that time, when I was an early teen, I wanted an AM/FM radio so badly.  It barely came in, but we could get reception from WOUR in Utica, the only Rock and Roll (Album Oriented Rock or AOR) radio station in the greater Syracuse area.  And by Rock and Roll, I don't mean the bubblegum pop they played on the "Top 40" AM stations, but album rock.   There was also the college radio station - WAER - in Syracuse, that played progressive rock music.  College radio stations were often feeders for commercial stations.  They could afford to experiment with new bands and new music.  What you hear on WAER one day, would appear on WOUR a month later.  And months later, it would eventually find its way to the AM dial.

Sadly, my parents ignored my pleas for an AM/FM radio.  Being from an earlier generation, they felt that was expensive tomfoolery and only suitable for adults.  What does a kid need with FM?  So they bought me an AM clock radio and I was bitterly disappointed.  But I listened to "Phil Markert in the Morning" on 62 WHEN Syracuse, who played top-40 hits interspersed with his own banter and comedy bits.  But it just wasn't the same.

Of course, eventually, the radio station owners sensed the new trend, and FM rock stations started to appear on the dial.  But it was the beginning of the end already.  The very people who ran FM Rock were smothering the baby in the crib.  Today, FM radio is almost impossible to listen to.  Saturated with loud and annoying ads, they play the "Same Old Oldies 92" or "New Country the Wolf 106!" or some such nonsense.  And when the ads are not blaring, the DJs are talk, talk, talking - often over the music itself.  Yet other stations have given themselves over to 24 hour talk formats - cutting to the chase and getting rid of all that pesky "music" that required royalty payments.

So what destroyed FM radio?  Was it changes in technology or changes in format?  A little of both, with the latter pushing people into the former.

Back in the day, cassette decks were just becoming a thing.  Early cassette decks were horrific - the tapes were full of hiss and noise.  But slowly new types of tape were developed - metal tapes and Chrome Oxides or whatever, and the quality of the decks improved.  You could now record an album and then play the cassette in your car.  Or you could borrow the album from a friend and then make a recording of it.  Or better yet, record off the air.  It was like Napster before Napster, or online streaming before streaming.

I recall back in the day, the DJ's at WOUR would announce that a new album from your favorite band was just released, and that they would play the entire album on the air, uninterrupted.  "So get your tape deck ready!" they would say, and then they would play the whole album, interrupting only to flip it over, which gave you time to turn your tape over and hit "record" again.

Well, as you might imagine, that sort of nonsense didn't last long.  Record companies were not happy that the radio station was encouraging piracy.  But other factors came to the fore.

My brother was keen to get into radio and he became a Newhouse Fag, working at the WAER radio station which as a college progressive rock station (today, a bland NPR/Jazz outlet).  One of his classmates was station manager and record company flacks would visit regularly and they would have closed-door meetings with lots of laughter.  Later on, the manager would put selected albums in the "emphasis box."   DJs were told to play songs from those albums every shift.

Was there payola going on?  Perhaps.  In the 1950's payola was a real thing.  Record company promoters would literally pay DJs to play certain records.  And it turns out that if you hear a song often enough, you will start to like it - and it will sell.  There was a scandal and supposedly the record companies cleaned up their act - and if you believe that, you are more gullible than you look.

My brother's ambitions of becoming the next WKRP DJ never quite panned out.  Radio had changed.  Many stations went to automation - eliminating that pesky on-air "talent" and paying for canned programs.  Even "Public Radio" went this route, paying royalties for NPR and APM drivel rather than nourishing local content.  And while public radio continually cries poverty, these content providers rake in millions upon millions of dollars.  The salaries of the executives at NPR would make you blush.  Think about how much the head of Clear Channel Communications must be making!

Enter Howard Stern.  Stern started out as a pretty conventional DJ but quickly morphed into something else.  Radio station operators were quickly learning that "Drive Time" - the commuting hours in the early morning and late afternoon - were a key demographic of radio listeners.  Trapped in their cars, radio listeners were perfect targets to be marketed to.  And rather than music, what they really wanted to hear was another human voice - saying something interesting.  Any by interesting, I mean outrageous, risque, or just plain dirty.

Before long, Stern's radio show - and ones like it - were being licensed and broadcast nationwide.  Even local stations who couldn't afford Stern would hire their own "Morning Zoo Crew!" to yak it up and tell off-color jokes.   And people ate it up.  What's worse, political types started to take hold, blathering for hours about how awful things were in America, because of the Democrats.  Right-wing talk radio became a thing.  Left-wing talk radio never really took off.

But franchised programming became a thing.  Remember "Delilah?"  It was simply easier to pay a franchise fee for a "feed" from a nationally-syndicated show, rather than try to develop in-house talent.  Syndicated shows were a proven thing, your own DJ was, well, who knows?

My brother's classmate graduated and started a radio station.  But unlike the laid-back WOUR in Utica, it was more high-energy.  The DJs talked and talked, and even talked over the music, talking through the intro of any song until the lyrics stated (because all that nasty instrumental part is just noise, right?) and then the talking started right back up again as the song ended.  And the music they played - there had to be payola, right?  I mean, who in their right mind listens to "Def Leppard" unless forced to do so in a torture chamber at Gitmo?

So, by the mid-to-late 1980's, radio started to fade. The public radio station fired all the local announcers (including my former roommate from Prep School) and just paid for NPR or APM programming - which again, was all talk, talk, talk, and little or no music, other than "Performance Today" which reduced classical music to a Top-40 format.  The college radio station became an NPR affiliate.  And across the FM dial, Jesus stations popped up, along with "New Country" music, and of course "¡Musica Latina!" - among others.

It was fun while it lasted.

The glory days of album rock FM radio were dead.

But maybe they were destined to die.  Like I said, at the same time, FM album rock became a "thing" we teenagers and 20-somethings were saving our pennies and dimes to buy a cassette deck, not only for our apartments, but for our cars.  And increasingly, car makers were even offering these from the factory (although, let's face, it, factory radios were lame and overpriced).  The local stereo store could to an "install" of a Pioneer deck and four speakers (!) for less.  Of course, you lived in constant fear of it being ripped-off.

We had options now, when it came to music.  So maybe the radio stations had to offer something else.  It could be that technology pushed the change in programming - or vice-versa.  We started playing our cassettes (and later, CDs) because FM radio started to suck so badly.  You wanted to hear music, and all you heard was talk, talk, talk!  On the other hand, why listen to music on the radio, if you have a cassette deck?  Radio had to offer something your cassette deck didn't.

And since then, the technology has accelerated.  Cassettes gave way to CDs which gave way to iPods and then memory sticks, satellite radio, cell phones, streaming, and whatnot.  As the chart above illustrates, Pandora streaming trounces the next largest radio network by a factor of four or more.  We seek out music, instead of talk, and other technologies will provide it.

Of course, this same technology also has talk, talk, talk, as well.   Sirius XM radio seems to have mostly talk channels - and a few music channels.  And sadly, the music channels are not all music, but lots of DJ banter between fewer and fewer songs.   I mean, I don't mind hearing Nancy Sinatra reminiscing about her childhood on the Sinatra channel, but having some lame-ass DJ fast-talking and over-modulating is just annoying.

So, today, if you want to listen to music, you have to stream it - on YouTube, or Pandora, or whatever.  Or you play the songs you have ripped to your phone or dongle or whatever - I have over 10,000 songs on my phone, there is never a shortage of stuff to listen to.

But the radio?  I opined earlier that Sirius XM was just a waste of time and energy (and money) and a format whose time may have come-and-gone already.  It could also be that FM has gone a similar route.   And AM went that route many years before.

But maybe it is because I am getting older and consume less media in general, and less music in particular.  Music is a young man's game.  You look at the performers and writers and hardly a one of them is over 30.   Willie Nelson was only 29 years old when he wrote "Crazy" for Patsy Cline.  Most performers are ready to retire by age 40, or at least have trouble selling records later in life (Nelson being one of the few exceptions).

As I have noted before, the music business is all about selling image as well as music.  In the old days, it was album covers and liner notes that clued us into what image the band was trying to sell.  Things like punk rock or glam rock were more about attitude than about music, per se.  And we ate it up.

I recounted before how a friend of mine's daughter ran away from home at 14.  I tried to talk some sense into her, but to no avail.  One comment she made stayed with me, though - "I have my music, and that's what's important to me!"  It wasn't that she was a musician or a singer, but she had a list of favorite bands and songs around which she had built an identity - which we all do when we are at that age.  And I guess when you get older, you find less comfort in music and your identity isn't defined by what songs you listen to or what bands you follow.

But maybe age is part and parcel of the deal.  The baby boomers created Album-Oriented Rock FM - smoking pot and drinking beer while partying to the tunes.  But then they got older and started drinking cocktails and snorting coke - and going to the disco.  But eventually, they settled down and had kids and listened, in their BMWs, to the oldies station - or something called "Adult Contemporary" - music that wasn't challenging the system, but part of it.

And speaking of the system, I guess that is the ultimate culprit. Rock-and-roll was subverted to commercial and conservative causes.  Yesterday's heavy-metal rocker is today's alt-right fanatic.  The far right has co-opted rock-and-roll and even Donald Trump non-ironically uses gay disco music in his Nuremberg rallies.  Hard to believe that the music of teenage rebellion as well as peace-and-love is now the favorite of the intolerant and bigoted.  But there you have it.

I am not sure where I am going with this, but when I was a teenager, we thought that this stuff was permanent - part of the landscape.  I recall visiting the WOUR studios once - in a rickety old wooden house in Utica.  Sort of a letdown to what our expectations were.  I mean, the whole thing could have blown away in a storm.  It was not as permanent as we thought.

And I guess nothing really is.  We fret about conditions today, about the alt-right or the new wacky wing of the GOP.  But these things change, and indeed, change is what brought them to us.  The hippie movement had nary a decade in the sun.  The 1,000-year Reich lasted hardly longer.  Donald Trump won't live forever, and it doesn't seem like anyone would be his anointed successor - nor that he is inclined, like most dictators, to anoint one.

This goes beyond politics - it also encompasses business models.  People think Twitter or Facebook are forever things.  We thought the same thing about AOL - who at one time bought Time-Warner.  Within a few years, the were gone - people moved on to "the next big thing!"  I'm not saying Facebook's days are numbered, only that something else will eventually come along.  We thought GM was a permanent part of the landscape.  But post-bankruptcy, they are a different company - no longer having myriads of parts divisions or building cars in Europe.  Today, they are a truck company - and making money at that.  And they were making money at that, too, right before the previous bankruptcy.  Things can change in a hurry.

Album-Oriented Rock lasted maybe ten years, tops, before it became co-opted by commerce.

FM isn't gone - just changed.   Today it is all talky-talk radio and I don't listen to it anymore, because I can stream music with few interruptions, or if I pay $5 a month, none.  I can also listen to my own music that I own (or, ahem! borrowed) on my phone or dongle or whatever.  In a few short years, cars went from having an optional AM radio, to having an AM/FM/Cassette standard, to, well, today where many cars don't even bother with CD players anymore.

It seems the only thing constant is change.