Why Regular Radio Sucks
It often takes a shitty experience to inspire a post – and so my three reviews and an interview go on waiting for another day…
Today, I took my cat to the vet for her annual checkup. I get these postcards in the mail of animals dressed in veterinary garb with sweet reminders that she’s a “senior” now, so I finally went. Last year, I took her on the bus in her carrier wondering why she was so heavy, while she howled as we made our way off the bus and down three blocks in the worst thunderstorm. Arrived soaking wet (ever carried a wet cat?) to discover she’d gained three pounds – a quarter of her body weight – in the past year.
This year, I got smart and booked a car with the auto-sharing service.
Again, it’s pouring rain, and again she’s howling like it’s the end of the world, but at least there aren’t any bus passengers looking quizzically at each other, saying, “Do you hear a cat?”
(Not kidding! Apparently her new head twitch could be seizures, toxoplasmosis [don’t come over if you’re pregnant], feline AIDS…what??)
we got back in the car to drive home.
Notwithstanding how stupid it is to drive in Toronto, because everything is one way, or no-left-turns between 3:46 am and 7:09 pm, or under construction, or filled with cars, this drive was especially stupid. I had to make a square away from the vet in order to get back home (no left turns…) that took me back to where I began in oh, just, 25 minutes. In all that time, to distract myself from what had become remorseful meowing (“I’m sorry I knocked all your piano music off the shelf, I’ll never do it again…”), I turned on the radio.
I haven’t listened to regular radio in years, I guess. I default to CBC in the morning and either catch Metro Morning or Q, and that’s about it. Sometimes friends or family have satellite radio in their cars, so that means something like all-Elvis all-weekend. I occasionally tune into the community station out of Alberta, CKUA, to catch my favourite shows like Wide Cut Country or Folk Routes. As a result, I had no idea how bad radio is these days. I just kept hitting the scan button: Beyonce; someone who sounded like Beyonce; someone who was trying to sound like the girl who sounds like Beyonce; Beyonce with a vocoder; dance music; awkward three-minute interview with the guy from the Arkells; some DJ singing to the end of “Stairway to Heaven”; different station with different Beyonce song, and back around again. I could have held a club night for all my friends from my car.
What gets me is not the terrible quality of the music being played, but the complete absence of diversity. Don’t laugh; I know this is what commercial radio is all about. But it’s gotten worse, yes? You used to at least find a bit of (new) country or hard rock; something different.
One of my research fields is community radio. Like many other beginner DJs, I got interested in radio when I was volunteering for the campus station in Edmonton; that led me into hosting a couple different shows and working in the music department at another station. I was so interested by that point that I started reading all kinds of books on community and public radio. The U.S. broadcast landscape is different from that of Canada: it seems much harder to get a community station going, especially after all the small stations were bought up by big networks in 1996. Restrictions are nevertheless tighter here in Canada; it’s more difficult to get a license, and the CRTC still takes licenses away when stations don’t follow programming/documentation guidelines (look up the CKLN debacle, for example).
Still, the community station circuit does well here. Not well enough to quash the gazillion Beyonce stations, perhaps, but those little stations are there. CKUA might be the best example. The little station that could. For several reasons, CKUA is a rarity. It is a community station that broadcasts province-wide (most community stations are not only small in operation but also have a tiny geographical broadcast range). It generates the majority of its funding from fund drives, with a small portion coming from the limited advertising time available. Most of the advertising is from local businesses and groups. Now in its 86th year, CKUA is one of the longest-running stations in North America. It has survived the transition from campus to community station; government takeover and abandonment; a complete shutdown in 1997, when the community of listeners and volunteers rallied and raised enough money to get it going again; new buildings and new management…it keeps chugging along.
At a time when people can easily ignore radio and plug a USB into their car’s stereo, or have their ipod playing a different track in every room of the house (is “Easy Listening, Bathroom Edition” a genre yet?), they still tune into local stations. I suspect the “local” is a key part of the reason: where else are you going to find out about subway delays, traffic congestion, or whether your mayor is smoking crack or not? In the case of CKUA, I think there’s something more than that: they play real music. Not to get all uppity about the music I regularly choose to listen to, but they do. It’s not all roots, though there’s lots of that; eclecticism seems to define the station while it defies anyone to stay tuned for more than half an hour. Yet people do, discovering music they wouldn’t hear anywhere else, or hearing the artist they just saw at their favourite bar’s open mic the night before. The station endeavours to reflect the diversity of the province, playing music and featuring programs that address socio-cultural groups otherwise marginalized by mainstream media. And that diversity might be the very thing that deflects channel-surfing.
CKUA programmers are warm and inviting, sharp and up-to-date on the latest releases, knowledgeable about local events and the roots tour circuit. They manage to pull off a global sophistication with an unaffected downhome charm that attracts both farmers and urbanites. More importantly, they are seen as the conduit between local musicians and a potential audience. Although programmers don’t follow a specific mandate to feature local music, they, and the station, are naturally inclined to promote what’s happening in the immediate area.
It’s a nice interruption in the barrage of shouty DJs and pre-programmed Top 40. If I’d had it in the car today, the cat probably would have listened.
Check out CKUA online here: http://www.ckua.com/. All of you ND people will like the tunes, especially on Wide Cut Country, which runs every Saturday morning.