Sunday, January 16, 2005

Tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel

Music listeners around the entire Washington D.C. metropolitan area, and in fact the nation, were shocked to find out that the legendary WHFS changed its tune from rock to Spanish pop music. The station, owned by Infinity broadcasting (one of the very few large corporate holders of FM radio stations and a subdivision of Viacom) abrubtly changed format due to an ever diminishing audience and a very large but as of yet unfulfilled market potential for Spanish language radio. WHFS "El Zol" is now the largest and most powerful Spanish language radio station in the area.

The following is a fairly in-depth analysis of the current radio situation in the context of the demise of WHFS. I link to a lot of pages in this post, and feel free to read as many as you like. I do however, at certatin points emphasize the need for reading certain external articles. I do this simply because the external article explains a concept not well suited to abbreviation, but I do a poor job at summarizing them anyways for the lazy reader. I apologize for the length of this post, but this is a truly momentous occasion for the Metro area, and it is an issue which I feel passionately about.

For those waxing nostalgic about the good ol' days, the folks over at DCRTV have put together a pretty cool tribute page. While I can't say I actually remember the 102.3 days of the station as I was not even alive at that point, I do have fond memories of listening to the station in the early 90s. The DCRTV tribute includes an interview with Weasel (aka Jonathan Gilbert). For those of you unfamiliar with Weasel, he was my favorite DJ to ever grace the station, and he actually was there from the beginning and only left a couple of years ago. Weasel laments that sometime in the early 90s the jocks stopped being able to be as free form:

DID YOU GET TO PLAY WHATEVER YOU WANTED BACK THEN?

[Weasel:] Actually we did up until about 1991. HFS is perhaps the last station to have so much jock input.

(I really do encourage you to read some of the tribute page. Radio did not used to be such a cookie-cutter format: HFS used to throw jazz and blues into all of the alternative and progressive rock they were playing for example). However, I think it's premature to label the demise of the station as starting in '91, but it's a good point to start the analysis.

What he's referring to, is the gradual loss of autonomy of DJs as a result of a radically changing radio landscape. To understand contemporary radio's problems though, one has to also understand a major problem that afflicted radio about half a century ago: payola. Essentially, record companies would bribe DJs to play certain songs because the more airplay a song gets, the more the record sells. The practice was eventually ruled illegal and the record companies had to cease the practice. It's a scary prospect actually, record companies controlling radio. After all, what incentive do they have to provide quality programming? None really. Their motives are not to expose listeners to a diversity of music but rather to promote a return on their investments by concentrating available airplay for exposure of major acts.

The prospect of affecting airplay and thus having a great deal of influence on people's musical purchasing patterns, proved too attractive for the record companies to abandon it entirely. Thus, the scum-of-the-earth-indie-was-born (Eric Boehlert, of Salon.com is the author if the excellent article on indies, and I also have to emphasize the importance of that link. If you ever wanted to really understand why contemporary FM radio is really bad, it's a must read. In fact, Boehlert apparently has a whole series of articles he did on various problems in the radio industry including indies and consolidation.) For those who choose to skip reading the indie article, I'll explain the concept briefly here: Record companies pay middle men called "indies" who essentially do all of the bribing for them. The system has gotten so entrenched that it is virtually impossible to get airplay without paying an indie vast sums of money as they control almost every major Program Director in the industry. There are two major reasons why radio is abominable today, and one of them is indies.

The other reason is the increasing consolidation of radio stations. In 1996, the FCC attempted an experiment at deregulation and totally stripped away all previous ownership rules for radio stations (previously an individual company could only hold a handful of stations). Corporate beheamouths such as Clear Channel Communications quickly consolidated ownership of multiple stations. I certainly don't want to spend a great deal of time bashing Clear Channel, as people with greater expertise in the issue have done so very well already: the Wikipedia article has a good summary of the charges commonly brought up against them, and Boehlert also examines the issue in his series of articles. However, the ridiculous amount of radio consolidation that went on the aftermath of the 1996 rule change severely degraded the quality of FM radio throughout the nation. Back during the controversy over the recent FCC rule changes I recall watching the FCC commisioners on C-SPAN, and the main concern of the Congressmen grilling them was that consolidation of regional television affiliates would have the same horrible aftermath of the 1996 deregulation experiment in radio.

A virtual lack of autonomy for DJs to choose what music to play and an increasingly consolidated corporate culture of radio have turned the medium for the worst. When my dad told me that WHFS had died, I had to say "I didn't realize a station could die twice."

While the problems of indie control of playlists and consolidation are the root causes of radio's current problems, their influence came in somewhat gradually, and it's hard to really pick a point for the death of WHFS using such criteria.

I spent a very long time searching to try to find information about a really interesting Howard University documentary that was done a few years ago on the music industry. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful, but it was particularly illuminating. The documentary used Limp Bizkit as a case study in how the industry works. A totally unknown band, Limp Bizkit performed at the recent Woodstcok concert. The documentary shows interviews with people in the crowd explaining how they actually disliked the poor set put on by the band. Apparently the sentiment was shared amongst many concertgoers, and a few of them with no discerning taste whatsoever just got riled up from the load, fast music. The rowdy atmosphere of the Woodstock venue and delays for sets of more popular bands all combined into a perfect storm with the Bizkit set to produce a huge reaction out of the crowd. A record exec from Interscope, who hated the set, marvelled at the crowd reaction. He decided that no matter how untalented they might be, they certainly produced a reaction in people, and he decided to pursue signing them for a major deal. The dealings moved rapidly, and in no time Interscope had pumped enough money into MTV to let Bizkit (still virtually unknown to the mainstream) appear on the then extremely influential Total Request Live show. Within a week, their videos became regular appearences on TRL, and radio immediately began playing their talentless music. I remember the first time I heard Limp Bizkit on WHFS, and that moment marks for me, the death of the station. At that point, HFS had descended so far as to not even be playing progressive/alternative rock anymore. Instead of throwing jazz or blues into the mix like in the very old days of the station, they were succumbing to the awful trend of mixing bad white boy rapping with heavier rock sounds. The Limp Bizkit craze caused a predictable pattern in the record industry: copycat acts to captialize on the success of a popular "sound." It got so bad that I eventually stopped listening alltogether.

I describe this documentary at length because it illustrates a very important larger issue. Record companies constantly cede decisions about good music over to whatever the current impression is of the "sound" that the market wants for a particular genre. This practice further refines the boring homogeny of FM radio to an exact science. A talentless band that has not worked to develop a fan base or musical ability can be catapaulted to fame and fortune at the whim of one executive who decides to throw a lot of Interscope's money their way. Surely they had to catch on with the public, but that's not a hard thing to do when "Rock radio" is consigned to playing utter trash like Linkin Park or Limp Bizkit.

For an avid music listener like me, this was a tragedy, but it's not without it's silver lining. I'm not alone in my sentiment. 3.2 Million people have made the change to XM with me, and there's 1.1 million over at Sirius. While neither company is turning a profit, both expect large subscribership growth. Both, also, made extremely risky gambles on the conjecture that a market existed for subscriber radio. I believe XM is successful for several reasons. First and foremost, the founders of XM got the idea for satellite radio largely out of their displeasement with the current state of FM which they naturally assumed would be a shared sentiment amongst many people. Secondly, both radio services offer music outside of the mainstream fare, but satellite has a clear advantage over terrestrial radio that makes this possible. Satellite has a larger geographic base to draw from which allows it to conquer the constraints of geography and address THE LONG TAIL. XM is becoming increasingly influential. The Unsigned station is an amazing outlet for local artists to get heard on a national level. So, when Billy Zero started playing Stellastarr, a record exec got intrigued, and they got signed. When MTV needed a song to articulate the emotional complexity of the final episode of the Real World Paris, they chose to use the superbly talented Chuck Carrier's song "Endless." This is a great new world in radio. Local bands who would never have had a chance of getting play on their local station are getting airplay on a national level and apparently the industry is listening.

Still doubt XM's influence? Well, the ever popular O.C. television show hired music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas to make sure the show could continue to provide its viewers with really good indie rock. In an interview with TV Week a month or so ago, Patsavas indicated that her main source for music was satellite radio. In fact, it's quite interesting to note that almost all of the music played on the O.C. is first heard in rotation on XMU (one of the finest stations on the XM dial.) The reaction has been tremendous. The O.C. has catapaulted Death Cab For Cutie out of obscurity into the mainstream. (Just a few months ago, WaPo referred to Death Cab as "some band named Death Cab for Cutie" while discussing the lineup for the Vote for Change concert.)

Now, there are some drawbacks. Notably, I did just spend a good deal of time criticizing terrestrial radio for over-consolidation yet here I am lauding a totally consolidated radio format. Unfortunately, there is at this point, little that can be done to salvage the terrestrial format at any point in the near future, and satellite radio by its nature puts a great deal of programming under one corporate umbrella. It's an entirely different context actually, and it offers some real advantages. For example, XM stations can cross promote each other-- something unheard of in the terrestrial marketplace. More importantly, since it's a subscriber service, listeners are not bombarded with ads or idiot jocks who won't shut up. As far as I'm concerned, XMU carries the spirit of the old HFS in that it is a truly unique source for getting progressive and alternative music.

And, because this post is already absurdly long, I will conclude with a relevant tribute to the Elvis that understood the problems of radio across the Atlantic:

Elvis Costello - "Radio, Radio"
I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial
doing anything my radio advised
with every one of those late night stations
playing songs bringing tears to me eyes
I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver
when the switch broke 'cause it's old
They're saying things that I can hardly believe.
They really think we're getting out of control.

Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don't give you any choice
'cause they think that it's treason.
So you had better do as you are told.
You better listen to the radio.

I wanna bite the hand that feeds me.
I wanna bite that hand so badly.
I want to make them wish they'd never seen me.


Some of my friends sit around every evening
and they worry about the times ahead
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
and the promise of an early bed
You either shut up or get cut out;
they don't wanna hear about it.
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel


[Chorus]

Wonderful radio
Marvelous radio
Wonderful radio
Radio, radio...


Couldn't have put it better Elvis! (Although he's actually talking about the British crackdown on pirate radio stations, the song is just as pertinent in the context of American radio today as it was in England then.)

7 Comments:

At 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you should look into pirate radio and underground radio.. another solution to the problems of terrestrial radio, but from the opposite end of the spectrum as sattellite subscriber radio.


Liz

 
At 3:30 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Liz- by underground do you mean internet radio?

 
At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite frankly, I don't understand why everyone is so torn up about the "death" of WHFS. To my taste, I would prefer to hear Spanish pop music on the radio, especially in an area with such a high Hispanic population as the D.C. Metro area, than the formulaic "music" that HFS has been spewing for the past 7 or 8 years. Tragically, the progression of WHFS' programming has only gotten worse in the years since its inception. I don't honestly think that many fans of "alternative" music will miss the current incarnation of WHFS.

David

 
At 6:44 PM, Blogger Chris said...

David- Not sure if you caught what I was saying exactly, but my assertion was that HFS had long ago died at least a gradual death throughout the 90s if not an instant one when they started playing that wave of awful music and actually conceded to having a constrained playlist (all that happened around the time of Limp Bizkit which is why I assert the real death of the station occurred then.) In any case, people are for the most part not missing the contemporary HFS, but rather the old nostalgic vision of album oriented, progressive rock radio.

I also agree that it's a great move on Infinity's part in an attempt to capture the ever growing Hispanic market. Although, I think there's another Spanish language market that has not been fulfiflled in any major capacity other than XM's now dead Vibra station: Spanish Rock. Spanish Rock is becoming increasingly popular amongst teen latinos as well as gringos such as myself. The international success of Juanes and the critical acclaim of bands such as Cafe Tacuba reveal that Spanish rock is a very undernoticed hotbed of potential. Kontra Ruta used to help in the production of MHZ Latino but sadly MHZ Networks suffered funding cuts and the show is no longer in production.

 
At 7:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris,

Nope, not internet radio: underground radio. I guess the true term would be pirate radio.

So.. this can either be non-corporate run radio stations on the FM airwaves (more of an underground radio station) such as Radio CPR broadcasting from Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights (http://www.radiocpr.com/home.html) or just individuals broadcasting radio programming without an FCC license (see www.radio4all.org). I actually dont know much about it all, but it's a substantial movement on the radical left.


Liz

 
At 8:53 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Sadly my only prior knowledge of "pirate radio" around here involves people involved with International ANSWER and used the low powered radio as a means of broadcasting news about upcoming protests.

However, I'm not sure it has a viable means of overtaking FM as a preferred terrestrial medium. For one, if any unlicensed station gets even a moderate amount of power behind its signal it becomes exponentially easier for the FCC to track them down and shut down the unlicensed transmitter.

A better alternative to the sad state of corporate radio would be the legal alternative of college radio stations. Unfortunately, at least in the Metro area we are severely lacking quality stations. College Park's, for example, is mediocre random college fare at best and it's weak signal can sometimes not even be heard on north campus. However, in Cleveland Kent State, John Carrol, and Case operate stations with more powerful signals and a much larger listening base. KCRW of Santa Monica college is nationally renowned as an amazing station. Their "Morning Becomes Eclectic" series being of special note because they engineer high quality live performances of various artists, and the program appears to be pretty popular.

In the case of either college radio or underground radio, both suffer from the tyranny of geography: their listening base is only as wide as their signal. (For more on this click the LONG TAIL link above) Satellite has a clear advantage in this arena. Thus, it not only becomes financially viable to host a 24/7 Blues station, but it in fact becomes profitable to engineer what is arguably the BEST Blues station in the country as numerous critics have argued about BluesvilleAs an addendum to my post, I originally intended to include the following but neglected to largely for brevity's sake, but I'll include it here in the comments section for those readers inclined enough:

The companies that control FM radio are increasingly becoming scared of the influence and potential of the satellite format. They are getting scared and are launching an advertising blitz that ironically only serves to emphasize my major assertion that FM radio has spirally so far down the drain that those controlling it have little concept of what their audience truly wants.

Yes, that's right, if you clicked on that blitz link you saw that they are using such hacks as Avril Lavigne and Hoobastank to declare that we heard them first on FM. XM should probably send them a check for the free advertising. I mean, seriously. They're REINFORCINg that people heard Avril first on FM? You've got to be kidding me. However, the $28 million dollar donation of air time reveals just how strong FM believes satellite is.

 
At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I FOR ONE WELCOME OUR NEW SPANISH OVERLORDS!
-Josh

 

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