Radio Waves

The strange but compelling psychology of radio was on rare display this week as the new non-jazz format for WDUQ was announced.  Tony Norman said it best:  Jazz on DUQ wasn't much.  It was old-style, smooth jazz (and as other friends of mine have said, pretty boring), but DUQ was an oasis in a local radio dial of otherwise numbing comformity -- WYEP and college stations excepted.  And it paid homage to the city's jazz history.

I call this "strange but compelling psychology" because radio is one of those things that people of a certain age mostly treat as a quintessentially *local* thing -- even though radio is, quite literally, sounds that come out of a machine.  And there is no reason to suppose, objectively speaking, that those sounds come from nearby.  But maybe you recognized the voice -- it was someone you know, or a friend of a friend.  Maybe that voice knew things about your town that only a local person could know.  The accent, intonation, and jargon might have been comforting and familiar.

Sometimes, a great story comes out about the role that local radio plays in a community that has nothing else to go on.  KXI- FM in Joplin, Missouri, for example.  Increasingly, though, radio localism is a mirage.  The economics of local radio just don't work any longer.  The fixed costs are steep (and copyright owners are working hard in Congress to increase the royalties that music broadcasters must pay).  Local revenue can be hard to find.  Take Pittsburgh "Bob-FM," 96.9 on the no-longer-a-dial FM band.  If you listen to the bland corporate rock that "Bob" plays, occasionally you'll hear a voice -- the vestiges of a DJ -- making Pittsburgh jokes and references.  That sort of sounds like a local station.  But "Bob" (WRRK), while owned by local firm Steel City Media, is actually a national satellite service.  "Bob" is everywhere.  Check out "Bob," for example -- in Boise Idaho, 96.1, with the same slogan ("We Play Anything") and a website that looks for all the world like a close cousin of WRRK Pittsburgh.  The trademarks -- the Bob FM in a red box -- are identical, except for the call numbers.  It's one stream of music, bounced off a satellite or through an Internet connection, or some of both, coming out of radio devices all over the country.  There are Bob FM stations from coast to coast.  But it's all the same thing, the same sound, with a little local flavor thrown in for effect.

So much for local.

Listeners who aren't of a certain age, if they listen to the "radio" at all, don't care much about any of this.  There is this Internet thing (a "series of tubes" as a certain Senator once said), and virtually any and every "radio" station  out there is now available on the Web and via an App, not to mention Sirius and Pandora and on and on.  There was a time, not too long ago, when telling people to find their long-lost resources online was rightly perceived as elitist; the Internet was a relatively rare thing.  But it's not, now; the Internet is cheap and ubiquitous.  It's on my desktop.  It's in my car.  It's in the palm of my hand.

So resentment of the format shift at DUQ isn't really about the music, because if you want to listen to jazz, even local jazz, you can get that cheaply and easily.  It can't really be about local radio, because local radio, well, local radio has been mostly a dinosaur for years.  Nostalgia for Pittsburgh's jazz tradition and $2.35 will buy you a cup of coffee at the corner Starbucks.  (No, that other corner Starbucks.)  Resentment of the format shift is howling at the wind of a certain fabric of synthetic community -- culture, "shared" in isolation, electronically -- that has unraveled and that needs to be re-woven.

So what should local jazz nuts do?

Aux barricades!  You can have local culture; you just won't find it on the radio.  But you have to make it, not find it; create it, not remember it.  There was music before radio, after all.  There were listening clubs, live local performances, and music in the parlor.  (Early record companies, after all, *resisted* having their records played on the radio.)   Music was *social* and intensely *local* in ways that radio long diminished.  Even before Bob came along, radio's localism was largely illusory.   Remember the image of Wolfman Jack, broadcasting from a lonely studio way out in the middle of nowhere outside of Fresno.  I grew up listening to Dr. Demento, who broadcast from who knows where (back then, it was somewhere in Southern California).  Carpe diem, Pittsburgh jazz fans!  Angry at DUQ's new owners?  Angry at WYEP?  Angry at Duquesne University?  Sure, withhold your contributions.  That'll show 'em!  (Not.)  No -- do as my favorite radio personality (and quintessentially cosmic guy) Wes "Scoop" Nisker always said:

If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own.  Make Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone and nostalgia maven for advocates of communitarian culture, proud.


3 Responses to "Radio Waves"

Dean Jackson said... 6/01/2011 11:14 PM


Wow wow wow wow.

I don't want to be a jerk, but that's the best news for news and NPR junkies in Pittsburgh, ever. I've always complained that most of my $ donated to support NPR in Pgh... gets spent on keeping jazz on the air.

I wish there was a way to hear both news and jazz on the FM dial that didn't involve sacrificing one or the other, but this will certainly up the number of hours I have a radio turned on.

JRoth said... 6/06/2011 10:43 PM

What a comical idea - that NPR is somehow a rare, precious commodity available only over the airwaves, while Rhythm Sweet & Hot and Music from India are ubiquitous on the internet.

Mike, do you have a scheme whereby I can get the RS&H guys to come over and spin records for my family every Saturday night once YEP takes them off the air? Because that's what they've been doing for us - via the airwaves, of course - almost every week for the past dozen years. I'm not sure there's a workable scheme to be found in "listening parties." Some of their thousands of other listeners might want a turn.

Mike Madison said... 6/06/2011 11:06 PM

None of it is scarce. That's the point. Where you live has essentially nothing to do with what you can listen to. My favorite "station" is in San Francisco, and I listen for free in my car, my office, and my home. Yours could be in Mumbai or Rio.

As for listening parties and other things, no one needs a scheme. Just some initiative and the willingness to experiment with some tools. Craig's List, for example. Or the telephone. Finding like-minded souls has never been easier.

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