Radio, Someone (That Would Be Me) Still Loves You

My last blog was (hopefully) a humorous essay about which songs radio shouldn't play anymore. There was a hearty response to that one. Not just about the music, but about radio itself. People are passionate about their tunes and the delivery system by which they receive them, always making for lively debate. So let's dig a little deeper now, my fellow music lovers, and talk about what makes for great radio.

Radio is sadly dying, people, and we need to resuscitate it. Think about it: it's our last free medium. There it is, standard with your car. It's built into that clock on your beside table. But you've taken it for granted, haven't you? You've fallen in love with your iPod, your satellite radio, your internet streams. Basically, anyone can be their own DJ. I ask people why they've stopped listening to the radio, and the main answer I get is, "There's nothing good on. I wanna hear my own stuff."

This is why radio programmers are freaking out. They think they have to compete with all of this new media that's emerging on a daily basis. Radio can't break artists or surprise us in any way, thanks to the interwebs. Everything gets leaked and copied and downloaded. So radio stations have apps for your iPhone, you can text them to find out what song you just heard, and you can listen to them online from your computer. Neato mosquito, but the content still is kind of sucking, isn't it? Which is why you say you don't even listen to the radio anymore, right? And what would make people listen to the radio again? To answer that last question, we need to do a little recon first.

Here in Portland, Oregon, we have a seriously kick-ass music scene. I was on the air here for five years, and I got to know a lot of the bands who rock this town (and rock it inside out). Yet, they're not being played regularly on commercial FM radio stations in Portland. They might get a token spin here and there, but only if they get signed to a major label. There is now an AM station that's catering to "Northwest Bands Only", but they have no live DJs telling you what you've just heard (oh wait -- you can text them to find out! So much better than a human voice, huh?). Also, it's on AM, which as we all know, sounds terrible. My 11-year-old son listened for about five seconds and declared: "It sounds like a radio station from the 1950's!" This city deserves better than that. Every city deserves better.

What radio programmers fail to realize is that if you localize a station, even a little bit, your listenership will increase. Every city has a diverse music scene worth diving into. Every city has a community of local artists, writers, musicians, small business owners, and others who need support from their media. Even a casual mention on the air can create financial results for any number of locally owned and operated businesses. If your market is big enough to sustain stations that play Top 40, Classic Rock, Oldies, and Adult Contemporary, then, by golly, there's a place for a station that rocks the local scene like no other. One that will make serious bank, even. If you build it, they will listen. And then they'll spend their money locally. Everybody wins.

Okay, so you've decided to build a radio station that's going to play a hearty amount of local music. Awesome. Now you have to get local DJs. Yes, you do. And when I say local, I don't mean you hire someone from another market to come in and front like they own the joint. I mean, you hire someone who's lived in that city long enough to know it well. I didn't grow up in the Pacific Northwest, but I'd been living here for three years when I got my gig on the radio. I also hadn't been an established radio talent anywhere else prior. My situation is unique, but it does mean a lot to a listening audience to have their DJs know what they're talking about. I made it a point to support my friends around town whenever they were embarking on a major endeavor. A simple shout-out to, say, Cupcake Jones, and BOOM! Cupcakes are flying out the door. I suggested the cannoli and pizza at a hidden gem just outside of the Portland city limits, and the place did enough business that they now have their logo on one of those highway signs that says "FOOD -- NEXT RIGHT". I loved being able to do a solid for so many people in my community. It makes everyone happy when it goes right. Never underestimate the power of radio, my friends.

Now! Once you've hired your local DJs (who are: knowledgeable-not just about the city, but about music and pop culture; smart; easygoing; won't yell and scream at the audience, nor will they insult them; and, above all, enjoyable to listen to), here's a special tip: DON'T FIRE THEM. The audience develops a relationship with the DJ. They come to depend on that voice, that person, being there every day at the same time. People will actually sit through a song they don't love if the DJ is compelling enough. The DJ is the face and voice of the station. Once the audience grows attached, they don't want their relationship to change. There's enough erratic stuff in the world. It's nice to know that if all else fails, you can turn on the radio, and the voice you've come to know and trust is there to help you get through your day. That's what I heard from my listeners on a daily basis. I was one of those rare DJs who always answered the phone and replied to every email; I considered it part of my job to be responsive whenever someone would take the time to contact me. It was an honor for me to be a part of their daily lives. Remember when DJs would be on the air for decades? I'm so down with getting back to that tradition. Short of them losing it on the air and screaming obscenities, it's a good idea to keep your staff once you have them locked in.

Finally, we must tackle the playlist. Oh, the hated playlist, generated by some knob in an office thousands of miles from your town. They insist on endless repetition of songs. You know what I'm talking about. Anyone living in Portland can pretty much set their watches by how many times they hear Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, and Soundgarden on a daily basis. In fact, save for the stations that play classical or are strictly talk, it's almost as if it were a law here: if you are a radio station in the modern era, you will play those bands all the damn time. Know why?

I'll let you in on a little radio secret: stations conduct what they call "library tests." They invite the mega-listeners, the ones who listen several hours a day, to come down to the radio station (rad!) and listen to music (sweet!) and offer their opinions about it (uh-oh!). These are the people who decide what the rest of you listen to, and they're maybe not the best judges. It takes only a few notes of "Basket Case" by Green Day before the little "I know that song!" light bulb goes off. Songs like that have a high recognition factor. Mainly because they've been played to death. Which is because they test well. See the vicious circle? We don't like the vicious circle.

So instead of the playlist being corporately generated, why not let the supercool DJ have a say in what gets played; that's the perception, after all, so why not make it a reality? Allow for listener requests, because people still love to hear their name when their song gets played. It's not a terribly difficult thing to do, really, to give the people what they want.

I say it's time to take a risk and go back to the radio days of the late 60's, where you'd get this really cool DJ who just loved music so much, (s)he had to share it with you. That was my angle when I was rocking the mike. I loved what I was doing, and what I was hearing (mostly), and that excitement came across over the air. We were hanging out, just us music fans, sharing all this cool stuff together.

That feeling is leaving our airwaves, and I for one want it back. Hey, a girl can dream, right? For now, I leave you with the wise man himself, Freddie Mercury:

Let's hope you never leave old friend
Like all good things on you we depend
So stick around cos we might miss you
When we grow tired of all this visual
You had your time, you had the power
You've yet to have your finest hour
Radio what's new?
Radio, someone still loves you!