>Stuck Between Stations


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Now, cue crackling static and distortion as we turn the dial, back to our regularly scheduled programming…
Radio is dead.  
The voices on the dial do not exist.  Ignore, if you will, the dozen local stations blasting a dozen different formats through the air, into your car, ringing in your stereo.  Skip the AM, skip the FM, mute the country and rock, hip hop and pop, the adult contemporary, the sports talk, the wakeup crews and shock jocks.  Radio is dead.  These aren’t sounds you’re hearing, they are voices in your head.  These aren’t channels on the dial, these aren’t songs being sung, but static, white noise, the vacant sound between stations, hollow and weird and endless like ghosts from a bygone era.
Radio, despite its existence, is dead.  The music industry says so.  When the internet gave consumers a direct and limitless conduit to music, radio’s role as a intermediary and taste-maker vanished.  People don’t come to radio for music anymore; radio comes to them, usually by accident, and tells them what they already know.  Instead of working in tandem with the music industry to break an artist or single, pop radio now operates to extend the popularity of established stars.  Where the industry once supplied singles that the radio turned into hits, the industry now gives singles to radio and pays for them to become hits.  If a song was popular in the 60’s, it got more spins; now, it gets more spins in the hopes it might become popular.  Really, the industry hopes to gain from payola is ubiquity; expose the song–any song–enough, and it’ll sell.  
With that business model, and that technology, radio is absolutely dead.  However, radio as a conception–its elemental appeal–is alive and well.  
During the 96X Series, I talked about music from the 90’s as I experienced it through one local rock station.  Most of the time I discussed one song at a time, and what it said about music in the 90’s, and what it might say about music now.  I only occasionally–or glancingly–talked about a song in terms of my experience with it:
…How I first heard “Wonderwall” on 96X the same night I was introduced to Everclear’s “Santa Monica, riding in the dark to soccer practice, wishing the carpool would shut up for a second…
…How it wasn’t until I saw the Girl in English Class sing “Champagne Supernova” to herself that I really fell in love with Oasis…
…How I’d sprint from the car to the shower radio upstairs after practice, wondering what the next song would be, singing “Brainstew/Jaded” from within the perfect echochamber of the shower walls…
…How an epic weeklong relationship started and ended with “Say It Ain’t So” in the background…
…How the boombox next to my friend’s pool stayed on 96X, how nothing made the bikinigirls happier than the first 4 bars of “Just a Girl,” how they’d instantly scream and dance in a rare moment of self-unconsciousness…
…How For Squirrels’ “Might K.C.” made me sad over losing something I never had in the first place…
…How “Tomorrow” was the first song I heard before a church all-nighter, and how it stayed in my head at the bowling alley, then followed me to the skating ring, then stayed through the early morning, when a less aggressive song should’ve taken its place, and I should’ve been tired, but wasn’t at all…
…How my team’s goalie had a band, and that band covered “About a Girl,” and I said I’d never heard it, and it magically appeared on the ride home…
…How my soccer team’s sweeper taped “When I Come Around” off the radio and could’ve sold it to me for $50…
…How I first heard “Semi-Charmed Life” after requesting “Two Princes,” celebrating in its opening moments as I mistook it for the Spin Doctors’ song, then cursing 96X and this goofy band for tricking me…
…How the adults at summer cookouts even queued up 96X once Hootie came around, because here now was some “real music”…
…How, a year into high school and a thousand miles from middle, I turned on 95.7 and found an oldies station instead, how that change was sudden and without warning, how “Nowhere to Run” was on but I didn’t want to hear “Nowhere to Run,” how I went to change the channel and stopped because I didn’t know where to go now…
These memories and a million others are what shaped my individual experience with music, but they’re not unique.  Everyone reading this blog has their own anecdote, their own story, a thousand soundtracks for the slideshow of their youth, their favorite radio station that seemed to grow up with them.  And though we’re told that consumers are too niche-driven and independent to suffer another power’s playlist, why did we once subscribe to it?
The truth is that no man is an island, and nobody experiences music on one***.  Music is an intrinsically communal experience, its meaning determined largely by the way in which it is shared. It is a type of cultural dialogue that shapes and occasionally defines how we relate to each other.  One lasting power of radio is that it provides shared experience for an entire community, three minutes at a time.  
But perhaps the lasting appeal of radio lies not in those three minutes, but in the silent milliseconds between songs.  In those moments, pleasure is suspended and expectations (though vague and rarely defined) set, all in the breathless hope of a familiar–yet surprising–payoff.  It is the forever satisfying surprise of the Next Song that makes radio a joyful experience.  It is the reason the bikinigirls screamed reflexively when No Doubt came on 96X.  It is the reason for my premature “Two Princes” celebration.
The joy of radio is the man behind each station’s curtain.  And this man–because he operates the format that you’ve chosen to listen to–has special powers.  He knows you, he knows your life, he knows your tastes, he knows what you want to hear, and he knows what you need to hear.  He crafts his playlists with divine precision.  He sets new expectations after every song and, because he exceeds them, you to trust him.  In those moments between songs, you can’t wait to see where he’ll go next.  It could be an old favorite that you forgot you’d forgotten; it could be hidden b-side that nobody loves but you; it could be a brand new song by a brand new band that you now instantly love.  The point is this: in that moment, it could be anything.  
But with alternative radio (internet radio like Pandora, etc.), you’re the man behind the curtain.  You’re the DJ, and even though you don’t know what’s coming next, you know what’s coming next.  You whittle your catalogue down to the smallest niche.  You edit the surprise out of it.  And while that serves a separate purpose, it misses the point.  While FM radio is a dead medium, the internet hasn’t provided a way to listen that truly retains the element of surprise.  Radio upgraded technology, but lost its magic.  
People listen to radio to experience music socially.  We want to collectively hold our breath between songs and trust the man behind the curtain.  We want to exhale in unison, one giant sigh of relief, when the next song begins and we know it by heart.  And if we don’t, we want to learn it together.  This is the essential joy of radio, and it hasn’t gone anywhere.
Your radio might be dead, but Radio isn’t.
Most nights it’s crystal clear,
***Apologies to readers who live in Jamaica, England, or other literal islands.
Works cited: The Hold Steady for the copped title; the Brother for the copped thesis.

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