I remember rock and roll radio.
On a cheap clock radio in the early 1970s, I remember exploring the weird FM stations that came from the nearby university campus. I knew the Beatles and, I suppose, the Rolling Stones, which competed against the syrupy pop and the AM dial. But the raw power of Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Kinks and the long-form music that became album-oriented rock was totally new to me. What was the band talking about bending “to pick a dog end"? What the hell did that mean? I don’t know, but it made me listen.
Radio was dangerous and fun, back then.
And there were drug references, only dimly understood at the time. Also, politics. This was the period bookended by the Kent State massacre of anti-war protestors on one side and the resignation of President Nixon on the other as the military and political battles of the 1960s came to an exhausted close.
It was exhilarating. It was the world. It was FM radio.
Today, radio is not exhilarating. It is not challenging. It's politics are the politics of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, of seething white privilege and screeching reactionary fear. It is dominated by Clear Channel.
Clear Channel is one of the, if not the, largest communications company in the history of the world. A quarter-billion people, mostly in the United States, listen to its radio broadcasts every month on more than 840 stations. Through subsidiaries, Clear Channel offers listeners a spectrum of bland musical programming along with incendiary right-wing commentators.
Las Vegas hosts Clear Channel's big annual celebration, the iHeartRadio festival. In many ways it characterizes the modern radio world.
There is safe country: Keith Urban, Tim McGraw. Safe urban-contemporary: Ke$ha, Drake. Safe pop: Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake. And for the geezers, safe oldies: Paul McCartney, Elton John.
There are a couple of interesting acts - Muse, Thirty Seconds to Mars - but on the whole, the 20-plus acts are as bland as the corporate radio they are promoting.
Here's a suggestion. If you want people to listen to radio, make it interesting again. Play Steve Earle or James McMurtry on the country stations; challenge the listeners to REALLY support the troops. How about bringing Rob Zombie to iHeartRadio? That, I would pay to see. Neko Case does pop; her excellent new album may not sell as many units as Katy Perry's, but how hard is the industry promoting Neko Case? Did they not notice that Vampire Weekend put together a nearly perfect album this year? Kanye West, for crying out loud: combative, provocative, challenging, but not boring. Janelle Monae, Deafheaven, the National: There's no dearth of interesting music out there.
(Comparing the two festivals, the iHeartRadio effort is making our home-grown-ish Life Is Beautiful project next month look really good in comparison - which I'm sure wasn't Clear Channel's original intent.)
There is a dearth at the iHeartRadio festival. Guest appearances by Korean novelty acts such as Psy do not make me run to listen to radio.
The closest thing to interesting that Clear Channel has put together for the festival has been last year’s meltdown of Green Day. It is still the most talked about event in the three years of the festival. Let's have more of that.
Leave the safe zone. Make radio interesting again.