Listening to the Radio

It’s been about six years since I listened to the radio with any kind of regularity. I mean, occasionally I would listen to a classic rock station when I was sick of my iPod, or whichever CDs I had in my car. And on long car trips I generally spend a sizable amount of time listening to sports talk radio or someone like Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Sean Hannity (don’t worry, I do it ironically).

But as for actually listening to regular old top 40 radio or some variant—well, it’s been awhile.

This kind of behavior is not uncommon or surprising: Anyone with an iPod or CD player and musical tastes that are even the least bit refined will probably be more satisfied by controlling his or her own musical input, as opposed to outsourcing it to a radio station.

Over the past few days, though, I have spent some time reacquainting myself with radio, and I must admit: It has some charm. In fact, I recently caught myself debating whether or not to make Z100 one of my pre-sets, if only so I would never again have to go fifteen minutes without hearing “Use Somebody” (it’s nice to see that, in the years it’s been since I stopped listening to Z100, they haven’t decided to stretch their playlist beyond nine songs).

The charms of radio, though, are largely nonmusical—most radio stations are still pretty shitty. It’s more about the pleasure of not knowing what’s coming. As Orin Incandenza says about television in Infinite Jest:

“The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.”

You can replace “television” with “radio” without changing the essence of this point: Choosing a song is often not as pleasurable as stumbling across one.

Plus, a serious drawback of not listening to the radio is a constant and vague lack of awareness as to exactly which songs are popular when. I mean, it’s not like I have TRL to go by anymore. I often feel slightly out of touch with currently popular music. After one hour of listening to the radio, though, I am back up to speed.

The problem, though, is that listening to the radio gets old fast. The first two or three times I stumbled across “Best I Ever Had” or “Sneakernight” were great, but the fact that most radio stations play the same songs means these songs have rapidly diminishing returns. Plus, it’s not exactly like these are the kinds of songs that reward multiple listens.

So, while I’ll probably be back to my CDs in a few days, and it’ll likely be another six years before I go back to the radio, it’s certainly a relationship worth rekindling. It’s been enlightening.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Radio sucks these days because it is all computerized. I have talked with several deejays about this and it is all homogenized by applications that calculate when, how often, and which songs to play. There was a time that FM radio was very individualistic. Yes, there were program managers that decided on certain genres of music to play, but ofter the deejays ruled the roost in choosing what to play. I remember hearing entire new albums or sides of albums or an entire night of The Who or Savoy Brown (I deliberately picked a group that was quite popular in the ’70s, but now is extinct in radioland as it doesn’t fit into a certain computer application). There were top 40 stations that would play #1 hits as often as 6 times/hour, but they were mostly on AM (WCBS was know for this). There was a programmer/deejay on Long Island named Denis McNamara who single-handedly brought the punk rock, new wave movement to the masses in the United States. His personality, interviews, and opinions, were just as important as the music. Look him up on Google and see the influence one man could have on the radio back then. U2, The Police, and others are totally indebted to him for their success.


    • Posted by John S on September 3, 2009 at 10:59 PM

      Yeah, I didn’t even go into how atrocious the DJs currently are. Even the ones that aren’t machines are basically unlistenable. It’s frustrating because it seems to me that one way to save radio from it’s current funk (both financially and culturally) is to have good DJs who actually expose listeners to good, new music. It’s really hard to be a good DJ, but I would expect it’s also extremely rewarding, and I don’t doubt that a good DJ could establish a legitimate and faithful following despite corporate homogenization of radio.


  2. Posted by Dan on September 4, 2009 at 3:50 AM

    This almost sounds like a proposal for a new turing test: two DJ’s, one human one computer, and the listener has to pick the human from the machine …


  3. DJ’s now (note that I dropped the anachronistic spelling “deejay”) often tape their meaningless intros without the music. I know one DJ at Sirius who goes in the studio for 1 hour (for his 4 hour show), tapes all the intros and leaves. That’s better than Michael Vick electrocuting dogs, but slightly worse than Donte Stallworth killing humans and getting 30 days in jail.


  4. […] already sung the praises of listening to the radio, but that has some major drawbacks: annoying DJs, repetitive set lists, lots and lots of […]


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