Radio, as we all know, sucks. Right? Even in a midmarket city like Orlando that's blessed with an astonishing number of stations, sometimes it's hard to remember exactly which of those numerous stations you're tuned into. The utter banality and redundancy of what gets played when music manages to surface through the muck of commercials is just consistently unremarkable.
Wow, wasn't that the least original paragraph about radio ever written? It's the distillation of an opinion that's common around here and certainly understandable. We live in a city dominated by three corporate radio conglomerates (Clear Channel Communications, Infinity Broadcasting and Cox Communications). And the independent options vary from low-signal unpredictability (91.5, WPRK-FM's smorgasbord of styles) and better-signal predictability (89.9, WUCF-FM's straight-down-the-middle jazz) to high-watt snooze (90.7, WMFE-FM) and the ubiquitous music that's "safe for the little ears" (88.3, WPOZ-FM). No wonder it's kind of hard to get excited about terrestrial radio. And that's exactly why I've been an XM subscriber for more than two years now.
But just because everyone's complaining about something doesn't make it true. Yes, the nonstop ad bludgeoning undertaken by the corporate stations can make you queasy. Yes, those stations' playlists can often be numbingly restricted. But people, I'm here to tell you, there are some small slivers of salvation out there. And I'm not talking about talk radio.
I occasionally am asked to be a guest on local radio shows (by occasionally, I mean three times in the last three years), and I recently was asked by a friend who hosts a show on WTKS-FM (104.1) to come in and offer some thoughts on the best music of 2005. It's not much of a secret that when the talk shows aren't yapping away on 'TKS (that is, the weekends), there's some decent music playing. I've long maintained that the sound of the WTKS weekend shows heavy on alternative hits and a smattering of cool new music would be a perfect 24/7 addition to this city's airwaves.
There's a sense that what the weekend DJs select is music that means something to someone at the station, rather than the corporate playlist vibe that dominates other local rock outlets. Maybe it's because Erik Dennison (host of the excellent alt-legacy show Sunday Night Vinyl) has a better record collection than I do. Maybe it's because it's primarily a talk station, and they don't have anything to lose on the weekends. Who knows? But my contention is that weekends are the best thing about WTKS. (Except for the recently revitalized Shannon Burke Show; the dynamic between a blowhard like Burke, a hilarious shit-talker like SBK and a diva like Savannah who doesn't just sit there and agree with everyone is surprisingly terrific.)
Needless to say, any corporate radio show that would invite me on to testify about my musical tastes is not one in a prime time slot. This particular show aired midnight to 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve (it usually runs from 10 p.m. to midnight) and is called The Final Hours. This long-running production might be the best hope for radio in this city. And I'm not saying that because I was on it. I'm saying it because I got to play stuff like M.I.A. and Open Hand and Jello Biafra and Inkwell. And because stuff like Be Your Own Pet and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah normally gets played.
While those artists may be well-known to WPRK listeners, it's far more rewarding for me to think about some second-shift Monsters of the Morning fan hearing those bands by accident and maybe, just maybe, getting turned on to some new music.
Still, some people might contest the notion that radio is there for anything other than playing the crap people know and can sing along to. After all, how else other than rote familiarity can you get people to pay attention to the ads that make your stockholders happy? But listening to the WTKS weekend lineup, you can't help but notice that there are some people in corporate radio land who champion the cultivation of smart and loyal listeners by combining songs you know with songs you don't know played by people you trust. (A novel concept, if you don't count the first 30 years of rock & roll radio.)
Oh, like I said, the host of The Final Hours is a friend of mine. Want to know what I got him for Christmas? An XM firstname.lastname@example.org