“Turn it up, little bit higher, radio!” - Van Morrison
“Radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anesthetize the way that you feel” – Elvis Costello
“It’s a thin line between love and hate” – The Persuaders
I discovered the cruel divide between art and commerce in 1976, at age eight. A friend had acquired “Beth,” the sap-rock masterwork, on a 45 rpm record. After listening to Peter Criss’s plaintive croon a few times, we flipped the single over and, suddenly, spontaneously, I burst into flames. The power. The glory. The utter rock and roll fury. I knew this was something that must be shared with the world, so I ran to the phone and dialed WEIC, the local top 40 radio station. “Request line!” answered the exuberant DJ. “Can you play ‘Detroit Rock City’ by KISS?” I asked. “No,” he said. “Why not?” I practically cried, panic overtaking me. “Because it’s not a hit,” the killjoy replied.
It was as if he had said “Because ice cream is not delicious.”
I could not fathom that his response was either true or germane to my request. Radio existed to play great songs. It’s where I had heard “Proud Mary” and “Brown Sugar.” It’s where I learned about putting the lime in the coconut, that Leroy Brown was the baddest man in the whole damn town, and that trains to Georgia departed well past my bedtime. The only possible explanation for “Detroit Rock City” not being a hit was that radio stations weren’t playing it. It was like the chicken eating the egg.
Despite that act of betrayal, my faith in radio could not be shaken. It was the altar at which I huddled for an entire day in 1979 hoping to hear Gary Numan’s “Cars” just once (when it finally came on, the experience was only made better by the wait). It was the beacon to which I ran after school on the day “Dancing in the Dark” was released, to hear Bruce Springsteen’s new single every hour on the hour for eight hours straight. There was also the nighttime jock in Kansas City who redeemed his failure to play my “Radio Free Europe” request (“Detroit Rock City” all over again) by spinning “So. Central Rain” just a few months later.
And it’s this capacity for greatness that gives radio the ability to let me down so completely. In 1994 and 1995, KLZR in Lawrence, Kansas was so brilliant that it failed to cultivate an audience (see the Advanced Theory blog for an explanation), and changed format, leaving me adrift. In 2005, a lot of stations played “My Humps,” leaving me afraid for the future. And now, everywhere you turn, it’s the same dumbed-down playlist designed to attract people who hate silence more than they love music.
But when radio kills, it still thrills. There are seven quadrillion ways to discover new music now, but the undisputed best is still to be on the highway as something unexpected and spectacular comes over the airwaves, as you beg the DJ to back announce the title so you can pull over at the nearest CD shop. Jarvis Cocker owes at least one sale of his new album to this experience.
It’s this belief that there’s magic in the ether that causes me to turn on the radio immediately upon arrival in another city. WXRT in Chicago. KEXP in Seattle. WXPN in Philadelphia. KBCO in Denver. KCOU, 100 watts of sheer rebellion, in Columbia, Mo. It keeps me from being lonely late at night. Can’t be alone when the radio’s on. I got the power of the AM, got the power of the FM, got the rockin’ modern neon sound, got the radio ON.