Sold Out

"I HAD TO just call to say I'm outraged, y'know?" began the phone message. "Is it true? REV-105 is actually gone? And now it's a rock station playing the Scorpions? It's part of a monopoly with the Edge? I can't believe this--it sickens me. This is crazy. I love this station. Just last night we were listening to it--and now it's gone."

The message goes on, with the caller, Jonathan, relaying quotes from his girlfriend, Barbara, who is commenting in the background ("It's un-American," she says). It was just one in a flood of messages, e-mails, and letters sent from fans since last Tuesday, Feb. 11, the day the endlessly innovative local rock radio station REV-105 was quietly yanked off the air in the wake of a corporate buyout negotiated by the station's previous owners, Cargill Communications, and ABC-Capital Cities, which already owns the classic rock-formatted KQRS (92.5 FM) and the "modern rock" KEGE (93.7 FM). ABC-Cap Cities reportedly paid more than $11 million to rid itself of the REV, a station whose revenues last year were less than $2 million.

It's a story that's common as dirt in some ways--media giant shuffles some broadcast properties, formats get changed, entire staffs are effectively fired on the spot, though some may later get jobs with the new regime. As one radio veteran working for KLBB (REV's oldies-format sister station, unaffected by the sale) put it that day, "Well, for once it's not me boxing up my stuff and moving it out to the car." And on the contrary, Barbara, it's extremely American: It's effectively unregulated private broadcasting, public airwaves sold to the highest bidder, with all the "freedom" that brings.

I saved the above message on my machine, and I've listened to it a number of times. There is a familiar grain to Jonathan's voice, a slightly nasal pinch to his phrasing. It's a real voice with a palpable passion to it. We've never met, but I feel like I know him. And I like him. The human voice, as any worthy DJ knows, is a powerful thing.

Which brings me back to REV-105, a station about whose work I can't be entirely objective (as if that's ever possible) since I've been a guest broadcaster there on a handful of occasions. That said, it is a station that, by any measure, will be remembered as a small miracle in the deeply conservative world of commercial broadcasting.

For starters, there were the on-air personalities, who were not snide emcee barkers or pompous NPR orators but quirky announcers who betrayed their humanity and musical passion in telling ways--charting the history of a particular pop song, yelling stuff to a friend off mic, relating a funny or moving experience not to craft a slick segue but to share a thought. The relative lack of polish was refreshing. REV DJs would do things commercial pop broadcasters virtually never do: question news stories, intelligently, in the middle of a broadcast; interview representatives from nonprofit social service organizations during drive time, when the maximum number of listeners were tuned in; give regular airtime to local poets. Sometimes more than public stations, REV seemed committed to "serving the community"--
a phrase that used to carry some weight in radio before FCC public-service requirements for broadcasters were all but eliminated during the Reagan-Bush years.

Of course, music was at the heart of REV-105, and while its programming was limited by comparison to a free-form station like KFAI, as a commercial rock station it was pretty much without peer in the U.S.--a station that mixed Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and DJ Shadow into its drive-time modern rock mix, and that hosted specialty shows ranging from the hard techno of Radio Depth Probe to the dreamy ambient pop of Moonlight Meditations, and the smart, history-minded eclecticism of Rock & Roll Wing Ding and Shakin' Street. In fact, program director Kevin Cole and music director Shawn Stewart were lauded as heroes in the broadcast industry for the radical gesture of not playing music that, in their opinion, sucked. That's why you never heard Bush on REV, despite the fact they had the top "alternative rock" record in the country. As Kevin Cole explained a few weeks before the buyout, "I just thought they were frauds."

If that charge was never leveled at REV, it also stands that their innovative programming, constrained by a relatively weak group of signals, could not compete with the powerhouse frequencies of the other Twin Cities rock stations in terms of listener numbers. Thus the scene at the station last Tuesday afternoon, which was sad and cartoonish enough to appear scripted. Suits shook their heads and offered empty quotes to the press while people packed their work-a-day lives into boxes. A group of vaguely apologetic DJs (all men) came into the control room to transit from Shawn Stewart's set of farewell songs--"The Bitterest Pill" by the Jam, "Thank You, Friends" by Big Star, "Love is All Around" by Hüsker Dü--into the Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane," a song you could almost imagine the endlessly eclectic REV playing, though not without some fist-pumping irony. Soon the studio was stripped but for a small stack of CDs--Ted Nugent, Skid Row, other ridiculous '80s hair metal bands. A greasy, dim-looking little weasel, flaunting a black leather jacket with an oversized ABC corporate logo on the back, sauntered around the building like some shrunken gestapo. Welcome X-105. Ha ha, get it?

It's ironic that all this happened on the same day as another corporate media buyout: the new owner of this paper, Stern Publishing, purchasing the Twin Cities Reader, which has now stopped publication. It's not an exact parallel, but it's a depressing turn nevertheless. Ultimately, all media--this paper included--have their shortcomings, biases, and blind spots. I've always believed that the more varied the voices in a community (an issue of quality, not quantity), the richer that community is. Watching media outlets fold in the wake of corporate asset-shuffling, it's clear someone's getting richer. But as far as I can see, it isn't the community.

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