Radio Independent

The low end of the bandI've always been a radio head. I love radio in all its incarnations, from two-way communications to local FM broadcast. But the writing is on the wall: radio as I know it is going away, and there's nothing I can do about it. In some cases this is probably a good thing. The AM broadcast bands—both local and shortwave—are mostly noise, and the FM band isn't much better. Not just the sort of noise that digital technology eliminates; it's the human-generated kind that's most irritating. Basically, commercial radio is a joke, and it deserves to die. In his The Death of Radio article a week ago, John Dvorak put it bluntly.

Perhaps I should get to the point here: Commercial radio sucks. Seriously. It genuinely stinks. It has been deteriorating since the 1980s and now is just dreadful.

It's true. But John left out one disturbing point, which is that the FM broadcast band also has a non-commercial side, which will undoubtedly disappear beneath the waves as well. The college stations, and other non-commercial entities that typically inhabit the lower frequencies of the band, are free of the kind of incessant babbling and generic pop tunes that characterize their commercial counterparts. There's jazz, and classical, and especially in the case of the college stations, new—and often important—music you aren't likely to hear anywhere else. They aren't in subjection to the commercial interests that drive the other stations' content. Yeah, they do have their yearly fund drives, but that's about as close as they get to crass commercialism.

Where I live, there's one station in particular that, to my way of thinking, is about as good as it gets. It's a college station, and an NPR affiliate, and its programming runs the gamut from new music to jazz and worldwide news to local stories. There's even a three-hour "oldies" program on weekends, and not the kind of stuff you hear on the commercial "oldies" stations, either; this is truly obscure stuff, more like the roots of Rock & Roll. There's Blues. There's Celtic. If my various tuners are ever set to another station, it's purely by accident.

If you happen to live in a college town, in a place with one or more universities, maybe you're lucky, too. Maybe you have a station like this, and possibly several. Like many, my favorite station streams their content on the Web, so in that sense it's available worldwide now. In fact, the Net has made it possible to listen to some of the very best programming on the planet, regardless of where we happen to live. Satellite radio offers more of the same. So what's the problem, really? The superiority of digital versus analog, and worldwide programming options. I should be happy, so why am I feeling so blue?

For one thing, it's a real problem finding a satellite radio I can slip in my pocket when I'm out walking, or riding a bike, or whatever. Then there's the subscription fee, although that's a bit moot because . . . well, because I still don't have that pocketable satellite radio. And even if I did, where's my favorite local station? It may be 82 and sunny in Los Angeles, but here they've just issued a tornado warning, and I don't know about it. Maybe there's an interesting local event this evening, but I won't know about it because I'm listening to a Chicago station. The thing is, I really like my local station for a variety of reasons, and I don't want to lose it. I can tune in from my living room, my car, my bedroom, and most of all my pocket. It's a community thing; it keeps me grounded. And did I mention it's free?

Mr. Dvorak brought up another point, too. It isn't peculiar to radio; it affects communication in general, along with practically everything else that can be digitized. The point is centralized control, which is just one more thing to add to my list of reasons for loving those little non-commercial stations.

Personally, I find these trends disturbing, since everything is gravitating toward Internet IP distribution, and as far as I'm concerned, this can eventually be more easily controlled by centralized governments than can broadcasting. Not good.

Disturbing is what they are, in more ways than one. And since he's been around since the early days of computing, any trends in the field would be more obvious than they might to someone who's been immersed in the bitstream from birth. Especially when it comes to communication, autonomy is vital. I hope there's a way to keep those little non-commercial FM stations doing what they do best. I hope they're able to retain their independence in a commercially dependent world.


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