Segarini: Radio’s Unpredictable Trajectory
I’ve been listening to the radio since the late ‘40s, and the one thing I’ve learned over the years is that radio’s longevity has more to do with its connectivity to the community it serves, than the content it shares.
Before radio, if you wanted entertainment in your home, the only choice you had was this; A Short History of the Phonograph Record, and as you can see, it was more practical to have a boatload of kids and force them to learn how to play musical instruments, put on plays, and comb the neighborhood for gossip and news, then make the little hiccups share the wealth, or they wouldn’t get dessert, or in extreme circumstances, dinner.
Radio changed all of that. With the turning of a knob or the push of a button, entertainment and information of all stripes spilled out onto the living room rug in abundance. You would never be alone again. No matter how cloistered away or hermit-like you were, you were never more than an on/off switch away from companionship or company, music, drama, comedy, or news.
Hard to imagine now, but think of the impact this miracle of science must have felt like after a lifetime of static newspapers, monthly magazines, and having to head out into the night to hear music, see a play, or hear a friendly voice other than your family’s. Suddenly, complete strangers became personal, trusted friends, news became almost immediate, and the changing face of contemporary culture was not only spread to the hinterlands and the general population with lightening-like speed, radio even helped change that culture by exposing more and more choices to more and more people. When the public embraced anything that radio put in the spotlight, well…pop culture, political viewpoints, and every other facet of our daily lives were impacted, and radio, initially sparking the latest trends or interests, would shift gears and follow the public down whatever path they had set them on. A symbiotic relationship more powerful than any that had existed up to that time. Television and movies would have a similar impact, but until the Internet came along, radio was alone in its immediacy and ability to be wherever the public wanted it to be. We listened and radio followed. Radio listened and we followed. A perpetual motion machine whose intricacies and borders became blurred over the years until you couldn’t tell who was influencing who.
If you have ever wondered about the evolution of radio, look no further than this legendary outlet that has been on the air in one form or another since 1921. In this well written (and voiced) tongue in cheek history, you’ll learn the reason radio started broadcasting overnights, how radio promoted their on-air personalities into the public consciousness, and how their exciting presentation of the current pop culture created legions of fans and listeners. Every jock had his own personal theme song? How cool is that? And notice how every new voice they brought to bear was nothing like the one before it. Watch this (and all the vids we post in these columns) full screen. One of the best promo pieces I’ve ever seen and full of radio history. The Incredible History of WABC
Ever want to be in the studio where this magic takes place? Here’s an up-close look at WABCs current set up. Nice to see tape machines still have a place in broadcasting. Inside the WABC Control Room 2008
At one time, radio had a sense of humour about itself. Before the complete capitulation to political correctness and the ‘one letter’ policy (a single complaint can bench an on-air personality, song, or program) radio accepted the possibility that tongues would slip, taste would falter and fires would break out. They would handle it with an arched eyebrow and an eye to conventional thinking, but still manage to support their broadcasters, apologize for their missteps, and wink at the listeners at the same time. Stern and Imus: WNBC Apology
Over the years, radio would every now and again discover a voice so unique that even people who didn’t listen to the radio would know who they were. The last great example of this is the unflappable Howard Stern, a man who survived multiple firings, visionless bosses, and an ever growing list of rules and regulations, to become one of the great interviewers and pop culture pundits of our time. You either love Howard or hate him, but his impact on radio (and on his listeners) is incalculable. There was a time when every station sought out a Howard of their own. Now, they avoid this kind of loose cannon like the plague because not many can do what Howard does, and the political climate is such that the less adventurous are terrified to be associated with someone this outspoken, candid, and honest. Howard made the wise decision to abandon traditional terrestrial radio, where his kind of behavior and fearless communication skills are deemed inadvisable, prosecutable, and potentially fatal to stockholders, board members, and legal departments at Radio Conglomerates everywhere. You will NEVER hear this kind of radio on a terrestrial station, and if you ever did, it wouldn’t be presented as well or entertainingly. Howard’s ability to use the justifiably vilified word in this clip is couched in the context in which it is used. It takes intellect to approach this subject and intellect to appreciate the point. The people who watchdog terrestrial radio would only hear the word. Songs That Sound Like They Have The N-Word
What Howard does prompted the wide spread use of the phrase ‘Shock Jock’, a moniker that Stern has outgrown, but still stands as a label for those who followed in his footsteps. There are still those who can rankle plying the airwaves. Here’s a list of some of the better known culprits. The 10 Most Controversial Shock Jocks
Radio has also become enamored of tightly formatted, limited playlists, much to the delight of their stockholders and an audience who have more interest in hearing hits than exploring other avenues of music. This current playing field is held in high regard, but lately some smaller stations and radio companies have been quietly and slowly exploring a looser approach. Here in Toronto, it could even be called a movement.
Toronto has an assortment of ‘hit’ radio stations, a few nostalgia stations, and some interesting and refreshing outlets that mimic no one. When it comes to rock, we have 2 stations, neither of which is like the other, although they are owned by the same company. One is a classic rock station and the other is a modern/alt/hipster take on what passes for rock these days. Just outside the city, however, it’s a different story.
The standout is a station in Oshawa Ontario, just East of Toronto, known as The Rock. Here’s a look at their ‘Recently Played’ list from earlier today. 94.9 The Rock
They do indeed, ‘rock’, and they do it with a playlist that seems to go deeper (and wider) than their contemporary brothers. The on air jocks feel connected to the music, and they will play an unproven record before most stations that play similar music. Here’s the rather odd and winding road the station took to become what it is today. The Rock’s History.
They also lend support to those new acts they play, and further their connection to the artist and the audience by going the extra mile to feature them with a personal commitment. Here’s a terrific clip of Scott Holiday and Jay Buchanan from Rival Sons performing live at the station the last time the L.A based band was in the area. Rival Sons on 94.9 The Rock
More importantly, The Rock has taken the perceived risky attitude that the format can be interrupted with something totally different and actually benefit the station. On Saturday and Sunday nights, they let loose a Canadian icon whose unique and unusual persona counters every other ‘proven’ approach to contemporary radio, and let him play the music he loves regardless of its genre or ‘hit’ value. What you hear is a machine gun spray of stream of consciousness ‘Theatre of the Mind’ verbiage, and music that continually presses that ‘Oh Wow’ button we all possess. Oh that other stations would at least give this breath of fresh air approach some consideration and add at least one game-changing rebel to their mix. From all indications, the audience, the station, and the creators of this radio show are happy with the results. Marsden Montage.
Other signs point to the beginnings of a shift from cookie cutter formats and sound-alike jocks in other markets as well. How long before this thinking spreads and infiltrates even the tightest of corporate playlists and formats? Back in the ‘80s a new idea was put forth that apparently held steady for about ten years, even though it flew under my radar. I don’t think the format ever reached Canada, but if it did and you heard it, please let me know. In this clip, you’ll hear the passion and the belief that drove the idea. The Z Rock Story
You’ll also see the background and how intent the creators were in bringing this format to radio when ‘deeper playlists’ and an unproven format were virtually impossible to float. To see what Z Rock was all about, go here.
It would be even harder now, but something is happening out there. A restlessness, a feeling within the industry that it may be time to look in new directions, but too soon to know exactly where to look. Change, as they say, is inevitable. They also say that the pendulum always swings back. Between those two time worn cliches, it appears as though it might be time to turn your radio on again, have a look around, and see if you can spot another sign that new paths may be opening in the broadcast jungle.
Just For Fun
Here are some lists I came across in my research. I couldn’t find ‘Top DJ’ lists for the decades after the ‘60s, and the ‘World’s Most Famous’ one contains only one jock that’s on the radio, and that is Satellite Radio, not terrestrial. The only famous terrestrial jock I can think of is Ryan Seacrest. How sad.
Segarini’s column appears every Monday
Contact us at email@example.com
Bob “The Iceman” Segarini was in the bands The Family Tree, Roxy, The Wackers, The Dudes, The Segarini Band, and Cats and Dogs, andnominated for a Juno for production in 1978. He also hosted “Late GreatMovies” on CITY TV, was a producer of Much Music, and an on-air personality on CHUM FM, Q107, SIRIUS Sat/Rad’s Iceberg 95, (now sadly gone), and now provides content for radiothatdoesntsuck.com with RadioZombie, The Iceage, and PsychShack. Along with the love of his life, Jade (Pie) Dunlop, (who hosts and writes “I’ve Heard That Song Before” on RTDS), continues to write, make music, and record.