[Feature] Ear Candy vs. Brain Food

A lot of people love and appreciate music, but there are few who actually pursue their hobby as a career. Though I don’t sing or play an instrument, my fascination with music is undeniable. I love being around creative people and being involved in the process of making the public aware of an artist or record, and that’s what has drawn me to radio broadcasting. Before I became an adolescent and wanted to express my identity by finding my own music, I was one of those obnoxious Radio Disney tweens. It’s safe to say most Baby boomers and Gen X’ers would agree that my generation has never experienced good radio. I barely know anyone who proudly proclaims to listen to terrestrial radio (the industry term for regular over-the-air broadcasting) anymore; the listenership just isn’t what it once was.

There was a time when terrestrial radios cranked out the soundtrack of lives and offered some of the best things: comedy, drama, adventure, sports, news, etc. It was live, it was daring, and sadly, it may never be like that again. When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed, small businesses were given a chance to compete against larger corporations in the same market. What wasn’t anticipated was the arrival of the internet and mobile communications, which resulted in a lot of giant corporations merging together and buying out the little guys of media and entertainment companies. So, how does all of this affect us as listeners, musicians and aspiring radio personnels?

When one company is able to own hundreds of local newspapers, television stations and radio stations each presenting their own single point of view, it becomes a big threat. There’s nothing wrong with corporate ownership, but there shouldn’t be a concentration of that ownership. Radio consolidation suppresses diversity and ignores the needs and interests of local communities leaving these media giants with the only voices being heard in this argument. For all the people who rant about how much mainstream radio sucks! Meet Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, they own more than 1200 stations in over 40 countries around the world, they play the leading role in feeding us the same mass-appeal songs over-and-over again.

Why don’t mainstream listeners just revolt and stop tuning in?! You ask. Well, I’d like to think it’s the same reason most people choose to eat out at McDonalds than buy organically. It’s because these monopolies deliver the goods so effectively and conveniently. Most people haven’t even been properly exposed to the alternatives, therefore, they resort back to what’s available. Radio is something you just turn on. It sits on your dashboard, and it doesn’t require subscriptions, contracts, or apps. Radio is fighting for its life because there are so many alternatives out there available from satellite radio, Internet radio to iPods.

Generation Y is a significant target audience for the media since it will form the bulk of the adult population within the next 20 years. No one has the time or attention span. We now use auxiliary outlets to play our own iPods through our car stereo. This tells me that listeners want more control. You love to listen to what you want, whenever you want, as many times as you want. Podcasts have become one of my favorite things. They’re great, mostly free, high quality content and also the leading cause of my recent case of insomnia. I tune into KEXP podcasts quite often, alongside BBC Radio’s ‘The Listening Project’ which is a lot like NPR’s ‘StoryCorps’: a mix of recorded conversations collected from all over the world that captures shared intimate thoughts between a loved one or relative. From a heartwarming conversation between a father and his 10 year old daughter who is currently battling cancer to a mother who felt motivated by her children to go back to college at age 55, there’s an endless amount of inspiration found in these recordings.

Teenagers and young adults are increasingly going online to find new music, particularly alternative content that rarely gets airplay on the commercial FM dial. The majority of new records that I’ve heard this year whether it be Phlo Deli, Shad, J.K. The Rapper, Kanye West, Sasha Go Hard etc… I’ve gotten from online. Where do new records get broken? With the influence that social networking, magazines, and internet blogs have, they’ve really become “the new radio” in creating hits for this generation. This is exactly why labels tried to shut down popular hip-hop blogs. Fortunately, unlike the old radio, major labels don’t “control” these blogs. Hip-Hop’s underground torch is now being carried by music journalists, bloggers and music video directors desperate to preserve the culture, killing any sense of pride DJs once had in their job.

I hit up DJ Ray (of Stereoloud ) by way of Detroit to talk about how he got his start as a music selector, his outlook on terrestrial and indie radio in the future, and how community radio has helped his career:

“I got my first set up when I was in 7th grade and it’s been on since then, I can’t live without my turntables. People use to sit down and listen to the radio because they trusted that the host would play great music. Today’s radio is going in the right direction, I see a lot of them are websites too and that’s really important since everyone is on the computer all day now. Hopefully the future of Indie/College radio has great DJs and personalities that can reach people again. I clearly remember the day I realized that there was ALL KINDS of really good music that’s never on the radio. I was like 12 or 13 and that’s what changed a lot of my outlook on music. I’d rather reach kids on an underground basis because they appreciate what you do more. Charlotte’s PMCR radio has really been great to me and StereoLoud as far as breaking our tracks when we drop them and having us on for interviews and stuff. PMCR has their ear to the local scene and that’s really what is going to make these indie radio stations unique.”

Indie musicians don’t have a better friend in the world than college radio. It’s the most accessible form of radio to up and coming musicians and small labels. With non-commercial radio, you are looking to generate a tool that can be used to land gigs, get articles, CD placement in local stores (maybe with store performances), and learn how the music charts work. These stations are all over the world and, unlike blogs, they get songs to an audience on a repeated basis. Artists no longer need labels to record, manufacture, distribute, or gain access to media outlets, so they are left with the hardest task of all: Creating music that has a personal and meaningful connection with the listener. College radio breathes value back into the airwaves, completely restoring what radio was good at – being local and connecting with local listeners.

Being connected to the community is vital for building a fan-base and local radio is the only radio that can do that. In defining notions like “serving the public interest” and “preserving diverse voices,” public radio calls on its citizens and consumers to support stations directly. Your patronage makes a difference and you help shape the station in its development. I reached out to Jason Michel, Program Director at PMCR in Charlotte, North Carolina. He shared with me his reasons for starting Plaza Midwood Community Radio, the importance of the community having a voice through his station, what he looks for in on-air personalities, and how anyone can get involved:

“I wouldn’t have started PMCR, if radio were as diverse and regionally relevant as it used to be. There has always been a void on Charlotte’s radio dial when it comes to cutting edge underground music and I just decided to experiment with some streaming tech and it took off pretty quick. Too quick, to be honest. Organization and time management is the most challenging, since PMCR is a volunteer operation from the ground up, everyone works on it in their spare time. I have no background in radio whatsoever, so the growing pains have been very hard. To me, radio is a very engaging way for a community to experience and discover itself. It’s a place for news and artistic content that is overlooked by traditional media because it is either too blue, obtuse or just not popular. Musicians reaching out to community and college radio are ensured that, if you get airplay, those listening are hungry for new music and wanting to support up and coming artists. Clear Channel has created homogenized strip mall radio and pretty much ruined terrestrial radio. When choosing DJs: Personality, good taste and commitment are qualities I look for. If anyone is interested in volunteering or hosting they can email us at info@pmcradio.org.”

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in broadcasting, volunteering at your local station serves as the perfect training ground and there couldn’t be a better time than now to get involved! Training at Radio Western is available to not only their students, but to the community members of London, Ontario. Meanwhile, KEXP hires interns on a quarterly basis offering relationship building and networking opportunities that will aid in securing future employment in the music industry.

Understanding the distinction between commercial and non-commercial (college, community, public) radio is key in marketing pursuits. Since large corporations are less willing to shine its spotlight on innovative music, underground artists are stuck with finding other outlets to promote projects and gain exposure. Everyone wants to grow and you do that from the bottom up. START local doesn’t mean STAY local. Radio and indie artists need each other more than either side is willing to admit. The young acts of today have to depend upon the young entrepreneurs of today to build their careers.

If there’s an artist in your area that you love; Request their songs, attend their shows and spread their music. It’s so easy for these indie artists to get frustrated and stop, but when a fan validates their talent, it encourages them to continue creating. Traditional radio has become hit-singles oriented. They believe their listeners don’t tune in to hear new, interesting music, but to be comforted by repetitive ear candy. Today’s society should not squeeze independent artists out of being heard or seen whether it’s in music or any other art form. This results in no challenge to the status quo. And that’s really what these artists are for; it’s the role they’ve played throughout history.