If you are anywhere between your late twenties and late forties, you likely spent your childhood and early teenage years listening to the radio. Back then even a top 40 station could offer you quite a wide variety of musical options.
In the early 80’s Q107 in D.C. would play new wave, country, rock n’ roll (aka current tracks played by aging boomer artists- now known as Classic Rock), hard rock/Heavy Metal, R&B, Funk, club music, early rap music, straight up Pop & Singer Songwriter/Adult Contemporary. Though top 40 stations certainly played their most popular songs the most often, they were usually choosing from a fairly extensive playlist. Not only did the variety of music being played make you a more well-rounded listener (and I might even argue well-rounded person), there was also the thrill of the unexpected- you kept listening because you never knew what previously unheard treasure could be next on the dial.
In the mid 80’s pop music, in my opinion, took a turn for the worse—and it became even bleaker as the decade came to a close. The fun of all of those New Wave hits gave way to a mixture of watered down pop music from the artists of yesteryear (see Chicago, Genesis, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart etc…), Hair Metal ballads and Teen Pop that was not up to the standards of the Osmonds much less the Jackson 5 (see Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Menudo, New Kids On the Block). Artists like Janet Jackson, Madonna, George Michael, alternative rock crossovers like U2, R.E.M. & hard rock crossovers like Guns N’ Roses were some of the only artists to offer relief from all of the other much polluting the airwaves. There was plenty of great music being made in the late 80’s- rap and college/alternative music were both thriving, but had yet to break through to the mainstream other than an out of leftfield hit single here and there. Most of it was never heard on commercial radio.
The decline in quality of top 40 radio hits (which I admittedly know is subjective) created the perfect atmosphere for the immersion of a new format. Much as the “Oldies” radio format had been invented about a little over a decade prior to celebrate the sounds of the 50’s and early 60’s, in the mid 80’s the Classic Rock radio format was born. The format focused on rock (rather than Pop or R&B) music primarily from the birth of The Beatles in ’63-’64 up to the early 80’s- but the artists/songs that were included from the late 70’s were almost exclusively by veteran artists. No Punk and very little New Wave were part of the format. To me, a kid of 14 who loved music but had no older siblings, it was the perfect antidote to the dreck that Top 40 Radio was playing at the time. 105.9 WCXR was THE D.C. Classic Rock station. They had a huge playlist and mined the discographies of such a wide variety of bands- not just focusing on the hits but playing many deep album cuts as well. Though the format did exclude many types of great music, there was an exciting amount of diversity in the bands within the format- at the time it felt like an untapped well filled with endless amounts of discoveries, particularly as someone without a ton of prior knowledge of the last 20 or so years of rock music history.
Somewhere between those fertile “Classic Rock” years and 1996 American radio began to crap the bed. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 delivered what I think was the deathblow to radio, but even before then radio was well on its way to ruining itself. Rather than letting DJ’s pick their own music radio was increasingly relying on call-out research which led to shrunken playlists. At the same time more formats were being created, immediately cutting down on the diversity of styles within each station as each station was resigned to a single format. The stated goal of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was to “open up markets to competition by removing regulatory barriers to entry”. In actuality, at least in radio’s case, the Act allowed two to three companies (Clear Channel Communications being the largest) to buy up the vast majority of stations in every market in the country.
I have actually been a guinea pig myself with call-out research by radio. They contacted me around the late 90’s/2000. What they do is they play you the first 20 seconds of a handful of songs and ask you to rate each song on a scale of 1 to 5. This only takes into account a listener’s immediate response to a song. I believe any music lover can tell you that many songs take several or even twenty to thirty listens before they really sink in. Certainly most songs take more then 20 to 30 seconds to hit you in the gut/mind or heart which is what music at its best does. The best DJ’s can hear immediately in these songs what it takes most listeners longer to register. Taking away the DJ’s ability to pick their own music certainly cut down on the amount of surprise discoveries for the listener. It took most of the fun out of radio. Even Classic Rock radio, still a very viable and popular format, has playlists that are tight as a drum. I remember hearing 50 or so different Zeppelin or Stones songs on the same station in the 80’s. Nowadays you hear the same 7 or 8 songs (and that’s just for the BEST groups) played ad nauseum. Is that really necessary when a good Classic Rock radio playlist should number in the tens of thousands songs rather than just several hundred?
Corporate consolidation + Call-out research + strict radio formats = homogenous radio airwaves, and that’s where we are today. Out of all of the music lovers I know, and I know many, I don’t know anyone who still champions radio. Radio is stale even for people who aren’t necessarily passionate about music. It’s a sad state of affairs and it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many exciting things about music today. The internet has obviously opened up the listener’s ability to sample vast amounts of music from many different genres. Internet radio, Satellite radio & Pandora are other options. But with all of the great amounts of music being made today the majority of people don’t know about it because there isn’t a proper platform to get the best music to the most listeners. Why can’t this change? Repealing at least parts of the Act of ’96 would be a start. But then bring back the DJ- don’t just hire them to press play and talk over the airwaves but give them power to play music. Don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator and play what every other station is playing. Allow DJ’s to be creative and the masses will rise up to meet them and it will make radio exciting again. And don’t restrict them to one narrow format. In the age of the iPod hasn’t it been determined that most people like much more than one type of music?