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Political Animal

We’re Not Listening

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/19/2005

If you heard a massive clicking noise last Wednesday, that was the sound of thousands of people frantically punching new stations into their car-radio presets after WHFS (99.1 FM) switched over to a Latin-music format. Being a survivor of the radio industry, we here at Animal Control understand what it’s like at both ends of the on-off switch, and we hope that the HFS DJs land someplace that allows them to continue drinking something better than Pabst Blue Ribbon. But the fact is, broadcast music radio, and not just HFS, has been dying, ugly and hard, for a long, long time now.

In 2003, New York Times writer Brent Staples wrote about how often New Yorkers put signs in their car windows saying such things as “NO RADIO, NO NOTHING” to avoid rampant break-ins. He wrote about garaging his car in order to enjoy a new CD player he had just installed: “Burglar magnet that it is, the CD player symbolizes my despair that commercial radio in New York—and most other major markets—has become so bad as to be unlistenable and is unlikely to improve anytime soon.” Little has changed on the radio horizon, and much has gotten worse.

Like the California band the Ataris put it in the song that Apple had them rework in 2001 for a TV commercial about ripping CDs for your own playlists, “Every now and then/ I turn it on again/ but it’s plain to see that the radio still sucks.”

You may be wondering what a subject like this is doing in a political column, but the fact is, politics affects everything. As that great Greek philosopher Pericles put it in 430 B.C., “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Radio’s suckage began in earnest in 1996, when President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act. It allowed for a massive consolidation of radio-station ownership, thus helping create broadcast behemoths like Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting (WHFS’s parent company). Between the desire for ridiculous corporate profit margins and debt service for the cost of buying up all those stations, companies selling radio “product” need to drag in as many ears as possible to their stations, and then sell as many ads as can be crammed into an hour. Radio already has technology that can shoehorn “more minutes” into an hour via compression and devices that suck out time between DJs’ words, and songs are often cut off long before their actual ends in order to bring up the next “hit”—so listeners have long been subjected to more and more “music” while actually getting less and less in terms of quality content.

Come 2005 and much popular music consists of manufactured stars of negligible talent (Ashlee Simpson makes Milli Vanilli look like the Rolling Stones) created by marketing entities and reality TV. This year’s Fantasia Barrino is last year’s O-Town. These acts tend to be leveraged to the hilt to the record companies and radio conglomerates that create them, so the artist (and we use that term ever so loosely) rarely makes any money, as contracts for musical acts don’t get around to paying the act any substantial cash until they’re on their second or third contract—the money goes to the promoters, agents, tour companies and all the rest of the soul-grinding “biz.” Clear Channel helps create, promote, market, and tour the “star,” and keeps the lion’s share of the cash, which it then turns around to pay dividends to its shareholders, service the debt, and help create more crap.

Think about it: We are in the middle of an increasingly unpopular war, brought to us by massive deceit on the part of our political establishment and collusion on the part of corporate media culture. Have you heard or seen anything reflecting this in pop culture?

Except for Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11—which has been vilified and marginalized to the point that anyone who points out that Moore had a point is soundly censured—there is virtually no protest film or music out in mainstream culture channels at all. Quite likely the reasoning for this is the utter squelching of any large-scale artists who may decide to put their conscience into their work. You haven’t heard much from the Dixie Chicks lately, have you?

El Zol, the new station replacing the tired alt-crap WHFS was playing, may garner a substantial part of a heretofore ignored community in the Washington-Baltimore region, and that’s a boon to them. Although the Spanish-speaking radio consumers probably shouldn’t raise their hopes too high about what they’re getting. In today’s broadcast universe garbage is garbage, and it doesn’t smell any different no matter what language it is transmitted in.

But MP3 player sales are skyrocketing. Let the programming execs suck on that.

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