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Social Studies

What's the Frequency?

By Vincent Williams | Posted 10/11/2006

Last year there was a radio ad campaign against satellite radio that I thought was pretty interesting. The ads would come on and sound like a local DJ reporting some salacious story--I remember a version about an actor "coming out" and another about an athlete on steroids--and just when the details were about to get juicy, the busy signal from a phone chimes in asking for the insertion of more money. The message was clear: Radio should be free for all. And I agree with that. Radio should be free. I can't think of a more egalitarian venue to access art than radio. But then, radio makes it hard and does a boneheaded thing like moving Tim Watts. Now, I know that most of the recent hoo-ha has revolved around the similarly timed 92Q shake-up, but, ultimately, I think it's the Watts move that's the most noteworthy.

Tim Watts is, of course, the legendary R&B DJ at "Magic" 95.9 FM, and, lemme tell ya, in a radio landscape of computerized playlists, slick-talking posers, and "on-air personalities," Watts is the real deal. For almost 20 years, he's been bringing music to a Baltimore audience, for many of those years in the 3-7 p.m. "drive time" slot. His knowledge of the history, influence, and artistry of black music is almost unmatched. Some of us, literally, grew up listening to Watts. He was on in the background for pretty much my entire childhood, and since I was old enough to have a job I've listened to him on the way home from work. And quietly, over a decade ago, when I was a budding arts journalist at this august publication, I always used Watts as the gold standard of how to discuss music.

A couple of weeks ago, however, Watts' was moved to the 10 a.m.-3 p.m. shift, and now a lot of people just won't get to listen to him. I always hear about people who can listen to the radio while they're at work, but I've never had a job where you can do that, and I don't know many who do. Regardless, it's still a smaller audience when you compare it to the many who listen on the way home from work.

True, I can't really get worked up over what Watts was replaced with. The syndicated Michael Baisden Show isn't bad. On the contrary, I think Baisden is one of the good guys. As Baisden has aptly noted, his "Love, Lust, and Lies" program brings subjects to the fore that aren't being addressed in the black community, and I can appreciate that. Issues of financial planning, the value of travel, and following your dreams are all things I can appreciate, and I certainly enjoy the train-wreck aspect of listening to people call in with their foolish personal issues. But that part has its limitations, and music-wise Baisden follows the tried and true "adult" R&B themes: lots of Earth, Wind, and Fire and Frankie Beverly. While that's all well and good, just because you're playing cuts off of Slave's Greatest Hits doesn't make you a DJ. A DJ, in an ideal world, is one part entertainer and one part educator. You can train a chimp to play music, but a DJ should be able to tell his listener about the choices he's made and why he made them.

I think this distinction is especially important within the context of R&B. I spend much of my time bitching about the lack of critical respect that hip-hop gets, but R&B doesn't receive the level of musical respect it deserves either. Oh, music critics pay lip service to Motown and Aretha Franklin and James Brown, and God knows David Ritz has written at least half a dozen books on the big guns. But, really, when's the last time you read or heard some honest to gosh serious R&B criticism? Who's discussing the influence of rock music on Minnie Riperton? Who's critiquing the production work that Bobby DeBarge did with Switch and his younger siblings' group, DeBarge? Who's even acknowledging the work of my favorite underrated act, the Jacksons? Not the Jackson Five--the Jacksons. Tim Watts does all of this and more. And now he's in a time slot when many of the people who respected and appreciated his work won't be able to hear him and replaced with yet another syndicated placeholder--one who was already available on the nearby WHUR (96.3 FM). And that's a shame.

I'm sure you know people who swear--swear--by satellite radio. I have a boy who claims it's changed his life. But, again, I'm trying not to commit to something that pretty much, officially, says I've given up on radio. I do have an iPod and a cigarette-lighter adapter, and I can't help but notice that more and more I find myself listening to it instead of the radio. Yeah, I'm trying to go along with the concept that radio should be free, but decisions like moving Tim Watts are making me believe that broadcast radio is swiftly becoming an example of you get what you pay for.

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