Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Southern Fried Radio and the Rise of the Machines

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

This is sort of an extension of a post I wrote last month -- No Soap Radio -- about growing up with the radio as a major influence in my (musical) life.

In college, I was subjected to Atlanta radio. It sucked. Too many country stations and way too many commercials on the classic rock station. Plus, after a while, you get sick of hearing Baba O'Reilly and Hotel California for the 40,000th time.

Our college radio station had such a shitty signal that it barely reached 10% of the students on campus and you could not get it anywhere else in Atlanta because the signal was that weak. I sat in as a replacement a few times for two friends who had their own slot from Midnight to 2am. That was tons of fun and we'd get wasted and stumble into the radio station (which was the basement of one of the dorms). Sometimes they asked me to call in and disguise my voice and help them do "bits". Good Morning, Vietnam came out around that time and I loved that flick so much (one of the funniest sad movies ever made). For a hot minute I thought about how cool it would be to be a DJ. But then I ate mushrooms one night and realized that the future was in video and not radio. I soon shifted gears and continued on my quest as a filmmaker.

I spent most of college listening to Dead bootlegs and Phish CDs. Funny how today I'll never pick up a Phish CD and prefer live show recordings, while I barely listen to Dead bootlegs and find myself drawn to some of the Dead's earliest albums. In college I was fortunate to meet a friends who helped fill in my music library (especially Chicago Bob and his roommate Jamie who gifted me crisp Dead soundboards).

I moved back to NYC after graduation and stumbled ass-backwards in an advanced knowledge of jazz. I worked at a major museum and several friends in my new social circle were total art freaks and other art school misfits. A few of them were actual jazz musicians, all of whom were very generous and patient in sharing their knowledge about music (not just jazz). They could have been total music snobs. Jazz aficionados have a bad rep for being totally stuck up about music, but these musicians were very cool, surprised and excited that someone actually wanted to learn more about musicians they admired deeply. Don't forget, this was in the mid-90s during the peak of the grunge love fest. Jazz was elevator muszak.

Most people, especially in LA, are full of shit and lie about cultural things either to seem cool or smart. When I first got out of college, I was not shy about asking questions about things I was familiar with something. I did not feel uncool or unhip if I did not know about an artist or musician. Sure, a few people rolled their eyes but the cool cats were excited to share their knowledge about certain subjects. You'd be surprised how fast you can learn about something from passionate motherfuckers. That quest for knowledge was almost like a drug. I felt as though I was getting a crash course in art history and music theory.... just from conversations (sober ones at work and inebriated ones after hours). I was a sponge and soaked up everything around me.

I was super lucky to crash the NYC art scene at the end of the 90s and many of them would go onto become the 21st Century's first generation of artists. If you ever want to gauge the pulse of culture you really have to find out what the current generation of young artists are rebelling against, and find out what inspires them, and try to get them to explain their vision. It was probably best that I didn't hang out with film students or other writers because I probably would have been more concerned with trying to impress them. Instead, I spent a couple of years trying to learn how to think and see things like an abstract painter or a jazz musician.

My jazz buddies quickly rushed me past the greats like Coltrane, Bird and Miles Davis and they told me to focus on lesser known musicians like Lee Morgan, Ornette Coleman, and Thelonius Monk. It's no surprise that almost twenty years later, they are among my favorite things to listen to early in the morning when I'm writing.

By the mid-90s, I rarely listened to NYC radio. The stations I listened to as a teenager were gobbled up by massive media corporations. Ah, the rise of corporate radio. More ads. Less weirdness from the DJs. More packaged plastic shit that passed off as music. I only listened to sports talk radio. At one of my jobs, I became an avid listened to WFAN, which I played in the background. But after a while you can overdose on those morons bitching about the same old shit.

In early 1997, I decided to move to Seattle and packed up everything I owned in a 1984 Chrysler LeBaron (Jon Voight's car). I headed cross country in a beat-up used car witout AC or a working cassette deck. The radio worked, but finding a reliable radio station in the Heartland was tough because whenever you found anything decent, you eventually moved out of range and lost access to that station. I bought a mini-boombox to sub in as my car's stereo. If I was by myself, the boombox rode shotgun. During the cross country sojourn, my buddy Senor came with me and we propped up the boombox right behind our heads on a bunch of boxes. The soundtrack to our epic journey had an entire milkcrate filled with the best of my Dead bootlegs tapes and my favorite CDs.

Pre-iPod, your car was jam packed with CDs or tapes. Everywhere. Under the seat. In the consoles. In the glove compartment. Thieves often broke into your car to steal your stereo and/or your music if you happened to flaunt one of those huge binders full of discs.

Thanks god for Steve Jobs and his iPod. I no longer have to lug around a ton of physical music with me on a road trip. An entire collection fits into a small device that slides in and out of my pocket. Amazing.

By the time I arrived in Seattle, the radio stations up there were stale and full-blown corporate. One of my friends worked for one local station and he told me about the horrors of DJs being replaced by a machine. Essentially they fired their late-night DJs and told the "producers" to simply monitor a computer that ran playlists and commercials automatically. Welcome to 21st Century radio.

I could not afford the newly formed satellite radio which gave you the benefit of nonstop music and no ads. I wasn't that big of a Howard Stern fan that I would jump ship to sat radio. I occasionally listened to staticy jazz stations on the far end of Seattle's dial, but that was about it. Instead I opted to listen to my expanding collection. I met more jazz freaks, more musicians, and more Deadheads that were tapers. I added a ton of Phish bootlegs and went deep into Coltrane and Miles Davis bootlegs. I also got turned onto tons of other stuff, particularly the punk department, which I was weak on but a couple of my friends were in neo-punk bands. I had just missed the punk and post-punk scene in NYC, so I had to move out to Seattle in the late 90s in order to finally have it come full circle.

I sold the majority of my CD collection when I left Seattle. I wanted to travel back to NYC as light as possible. I mostly kept cassettes (Dead, Phish, and jazz bootlegs) and a dozen or so "desert island" albums that I could not part with.

When I returned to NYC at the turn of the century, I missed-out on Napster. I didn't have an office job and did not have high-speed internet access (I was using AOL dial-up), but friends who experienced its short life loved it.

I noticed that whenever I rented cars to drive from NYC to Atlantic City or Foxwoods, some of the cars came with free satellite radio. I took advantage of the "Jam On" station and the Grateful Dead station. But if you have that service all the time, the music starts to get stale and you see tons of repeats. Alas, for a short-term rental... it was a great addition.

The only radio I listened to was Fordham Univeristy's radio and they played a nice eclectic mix, but sometimes they had weird programs, so it was hit or miss. By then I was an iPod cult member. I became a slave to different mixes I made. Specific playlists for playing online poker, or writing, or walking around NYC, or driving. Instead of music getting broken down into genres, I broke it down by activities.

I moved to Vegas in the mid 00s and my roommate was friends with one of the local radio DJs. I got to hear more bad beat stories about modern corporate-run radio when money is the bottom line and a station could change from Top 40 to country overnight. For the most part, Vegas radio sucked. Too many commercials. You couldn't hear three songs without a commercial. My only knowledge of contemporary Top 40 music came through sheer osmosis working and playing poker in casinos that pumped pop hit songs through their soundsystem. When I hung out a lot at stripclubs, I heard plenty of the hip hop and dance hits du jour.

How do you know what's a hip song today? Ask a stripper.

I moved to L.A. and quickly found out the their radio is shitty as well. Too many commercials. Sometimes if the signal is right, you can hear a couple of jazz stations at night time, but I never listen to any local L.A. radio. I couldn't even tell you the radio stations. Nicky and I pretty much listen to our iPods exclusively whenever we're in the car and at home it's nothing but iPods and podcasts.

When I was a kid, the first thing I did when I woke up was turn on the radio. It's the first thing I turned on when I got home from school (and only shut it off to watch TV/VCR). The radio was the last thing I turned off at night and usually fell asleep to the radio on. As an adult, I never listen to radio anymore. Instead, I'm a full blown podcast convert. It's funny... I was on a lot of different poker podcasts and even did one of my own with my buddies Michalski and Benjo, but I did not listen to many of them (probably due to lack of time) aside from a handful of poker podcasts. I became addicted to non-poker podcasts when I moved in San Francisco last year. I liked grabbing a bunch for my iPod and then wandering around the city in a pharmie-daze. Those podcasts ranged from sportsbetting to conspiracy to finance to comedians. Long-form radio-style interviews and discussions are not profitable for corporate radio, but luckily those quirky podcasts found a home on the internet.

My podcast phase carried over into this year. I'm a full-blown addict, which sucks because I'm trying to trim down my podcast listening list. At least I have a few upcoming trips and I'll have some time to dig deep into the long list of un-listened podcasts that keep piling up. Unlike reading, podcasts are impossible to "skim." I wish I had more time because there's some great content out there with fascinating people talking about fascinating subjects. That's what TV used to be... a forum for interesting and intelligent people to discuss different topics. Modern TV has devolved into unscripted reality programming which is the glorification of abnormal behavior and inbred, self-absorbed twits yelling at each other.

Ah, the death of radio. Does anyone under 40 years-old or someone who is not a taxi driver or truck driver listen to the radio anymore? Radio used to be the most important medium in America. Heck, in the world. but then record companies went to TV to sell their crack (music albums from the current sizzling star), and that's why American Idol and Glee albums sell like hotcakes. You know what pushes an indie single? Hearing it during a depressing interlude on Grey's Anatomy. After a while The OC became a forum to sell indie records, just like they tried to do with Dawson's Creek in the 90s. The record labels (unless it's country) cannot rely on radio stations to sell records in the 21st Century, because no one listens to the radio anymore for music. Heck in the last week alone, I listened to more music via YouTube than I did on the radio in the last five years.

Check out the original radio post... No Soap Radio.


  1. I loved the radio as a young kid. I'd record songs off the Top 40 shows with Casey Kasem on this junky boombox I somehow inherited. Sometimes I recorded myself bring the DJ. When I moved to Germany in the mid-80s, all we had was Armed Forces Network. They divided the day into 30-minute and one-hour blocks an hour of R&B, an hour of Top 40, an hour of country, 30 minutes of world news, etc. At night you sometimes got Dr. Demento or old radio serials from the 30s and 40s.

    Some of my best memories from high school involve sitting by the old 1980s stereo receiver my parents' friend had disposed of, tuning in the weird station from Austin that only came in at night under the right conditions. Hearing Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, The Church, and all sorts of local bands from Austin coming in through the static was a treat. It really opened me up to the bigger cultural world beyond the little military town I lived in.

    I don't listen to the radio anymore, though. Sometimes I try. After a few minutes I just can't take it. Too many commercials, same old songs all the time. Ah well.

  2. Has radio been replaced by streaming services like Spotify?

  3. I've discovered podcasts are a good accompaniment to long walks with my dog. As for radio, for the past 10 years I've only listened to satellite radio, sort of a necessity when road trips are mostly in the backwoods of Iowa/Nebraska/Minnesota/Kansas. But I do miss my mixed tapes off late night radio and bootlegs from hipper college friends ...