Radio Radio

We search the airwaves for signs of intelligent life

Consolidation, along with the new radio culture, stopped the flow of our culture at the main vein.


I loved the Rev. I miss the Rev. But let it be said that I am not against populist pop music. I like stuff that's big, shiny, and hooky. And I don't have a taste for a lot of what is considered by the hipoisie to be indie rock. I would just as soon listen to "Livin' la Vida Loca" or Alicia Keys than to hear "Exit Music (for a Film)" or Jill Scott. On occasion, in a particular mood, I'll still listen to "Freebird" when it graces the airwaves. In this, I have just a hint of shame.

Still, despite my love for hits and classic rock, I tend to have a disdain for empty nostalgia; I want to hear songs I've never heard before coming out of my radio.

News flash: This is harder to come by in the Twin Cities these days. Only six major commercial stations, KDWB-FM (101.3), WLTE-FM (102.9), KS95 (94.5 FM), KTTB-FM (96.3) Cities 97 (97.1 FM) and 93X (93.7 FM), bothered to play anything by new pop artists in 2001. Of these stations, only KDWB and Cities 97 seem particularly interested in being the first in town to play a new song, and even that comes only after weeks of call-out research and chart observation. This, I am told, is better than it is in most markets.

There are few signs of hope. The current Arbitron book shows that ratings slipped a notch in key demographic groups for oldies stations like Kool 108 (107.9 FM) and WLOL-FM (100.3). Moreover, Clear Channel's V105 (Rev's eventual replacement, many formats later), which was relying on old R&B songs, flipped formats to Drive 105, the third go-round with some sort of alternative format. (From Ike Turner to Ike Reilly, is how one radio insider put it to me. Still, a quick listen reveals that Drive 105 is also mining for nostalgia, playing alterna-oldies like "Under the Milky Way" by the Church far too often.)

By all accounts within local radio circles, this creates hope that a change is gonna come. Still, it will be a long road. Awhile back, brand-name college bands like Built to Spill or Soul Coughing (remember them?) could do a two-week tour, play the Mainroom at First Avenue, and be sure that a station might play their music in the days before and after the show. Not so anymore--a big part of why club attendance has fallen in the past few years.

And it's not just the up-and-comers who are being shut out of radio. Last year saw the release of critically praised new albums by Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, and Elton John. So far, none of them has received much airplay, and only Dylan's went gold. Yet these artists' back catalogs fill the airwaves on a daily basis. (A similar fate has been bestowed upon the latest from Stevie Nicks, one of the few chicks allowed in the classic-rock boys club.)

Of course, it could be that these guys are just irrelevant now, but there's something else going on. Media conglomerates and advertisers have a fetish for what's becoming the "glory demo"--the demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds, especially men, in their "peak earning years." Fact is, a majority of these folks only want to hear what they know.

For instance, in the 1980s, ZZ Top made two videos for the songs "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs" that essentially defined heavy rotation in the early days on MTV. But for all the buzz the videos created, only "Legs" broke the Top 10, while the other languished at the bottom of the charts. More to the point, both songs get more spins in this market today than when they were current releases. I count three stations in town that play both songs incessantly, which is more than the number of stations in town that play David Gray.

My favorite pastime is hitting "scan" on my car stereo to see where I can ride the FM airwaves. Small rural or college stations crop up, but mostly I like to hear what the big stations in town are playing, and how often. Over the past five years, this masochistic habit has yielded increasingly limited and frustrating results. Still, I haven't given up. True love may not be blind, but it is forgiving.

A month or so ago, rummaging through a junk drawer at my parents' house, I found the list I made on New Year's Eve, 1979. Turns out my old Lloyd's radio still works, as well. Problem is, when I turn it on, the song remains the same and the thrill is gone.


The Radio Gods
Praise the lord, Christian radio is a hit

"Thank you, Jesus." Those were Chuck Knapp's final words on commercial radio in 1994. After three decades on the FM dial and fifteen years as part of Knapp and Donuts, a morning drive-time duo on KS95 (94.5 FM), he walked away from radio. There was just no room for Jesus during drive time.

Almost a decade later, on an early Friday morning in January, Knapp is back behind the microphone. "Good morning! Good morning!" he booms in a 50,000-watt voice as the clock ticks past 5:00 a.m., fiddle music playing in the background. It's a "no fear Friday" on KTIS (98.5 FM) and Knapp is once again part of a morning drive-time team: the Knapper and the Pastor. The top-of-the-hour news has just brought word that the mayor of Inglis, Florida, has issued a proclamation banning Satan from the town limits.

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