Radio: a complaint, a defense, and a plea

A few posts ago I was writing about music, habitual music listening, and the fear of silence. I mentioned a radio station I was forced to endure at an office job I held for a few years and posited that I might write a post about that station. Here’s that post.

Which radio station it was is not important. If you live pretty much anywhere in the English-speaking world, your radio dial can tune in at least one station like it; if you live in the U.S. or Canada, you can probably get half a dozen. You know the ones: they claim to play “the best mix of today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites,” and most of them, including this one, have something they call a “no-repeat workday.” You hear these stations a lot in workplaces, especially workplaces with large populations of middle-aged white people, because the music they play is generally thought to have the broadest appeal, or at least to offend the sensibilities and tastes of the fewest people.

Bull.

Now, it’s not that the music (well, most of it) is actually bad. Some of it is, of course, but the bulk of it is pretty mediocre, and some is even quite good. No, there’s another whole set of problems, which tie into the fact that a radio station is a business whose customers are not listeners but advertisers and whose product is not music but the ears of the listeners.

One way this fact plays out is that the disc jockeys don’t actually choose what songs will be played over the air. In fact, the DJs aren’t even necessary, except to maintain the illusion that there are still humans in a studio deciding how best to entertain their listeners, the way radio used to work decades ago. No, the songs are chosen by computer algorithms and compiled into lists that can be played entirely automatically. The computer algorithms calculate the selection and arrangement of songs that will induce the largest number of people (or at least the ones in key demographics) to tune in the station and leave it tuned in. Different radio formats–country, classic rock, pop, and so on–draw from different pools of songs, but they all work basically the same way. The “variety” these stations promise the listeners is in fact carefully controlled.

Try making a list of the songs your local station plays during an average workday. Then do the same the next day, and the next. Then compare the lists and see how many songs are on all three. Then note the number of songs that get played at roughly the same time every day, give or take a few minutes. You’ll see what I mean.

I will cop to liking ABBA. I will cop to liking “Dancing Queen,” though I prefer some of their other songs, if only because I hear them about a twentieth as often. But when the radio station at my former workplace played “Dancing Queen” sometime between 10:20 and 10:40 every morning for six straight weeks, I had quite enough.

This brings me to another point: the con that is the “no-repeat workday.” Ostensibly this is another promise of musical variety, assuring you that, even if a given song is a big hit, you won’t have to hear it over and over during the day. But that’s only sort of true, because most stations’ “no-repeat workday” lasts from around 9:00 to around 4:00, but most people’s actual workday (well, OK, mine at that job) ran from 8:00 to 4:30. So what would happen was that we’d hear a certain hit song between 8:00 and 9:00, then again between 9:00 and 4:00, then a third time as soon as 4:00 arrived and the restriction of the “no-repeat workday” was lifted.

Even so, the “no-repeat workday” might well have “[made] your workday go by faster,” as the station’s jingle claimed–if not for the fact that its effect on the workweek was precisely the opposite. By playing even a handful of the same songs at the same times every day (e.g., the “Dancing Queen” fiasco), the station made every workday blend into every other and thereby only increased the soul-crushing monotony of the job. (Oh, right, forgot to mention: I wasn’t terribly keen on this particular job to begin with.)

I did get a little bit of relief at 3:00, when the two co-workers with whom I shared workspace left and I was free to change the station on our radio to whatever I wanted, so long as I kept the volume reasonable. I usually opted for classical, because it was far away, musically speaking, from what I’d been subjected to up to that point.

Anyway, I noted earlier that the business of radio works in particular ways, and that leads me to my final point: we can demand better, and we should.

Radio at its best can give our days and nights wonderful soundtracks that surprise us and expose us to new music that we might not have sought out but that grabs hold of us anyway. I’d never heard Counting Crows’ “Long December” until I turned on the radio one night when I was feeling low and the song gave the perfect voice to my mood. Then there’s Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #6, which I heard for the first time one afternoon at work–and drove to a store and bought on CD as soon as I clocked out. An mp3 player I loaded myself couldn’t have done those things, but a radio station could. Radio can be great.

But so many radio stations use this horrible operating model, and they do that because it still draws listeners, so it still draws advertisers, so they have no incentive to change. But there are a handful of radio stations, including public ones and a few others, that operate on different models and that still use live DJs to select music. So find those stations and listen to them. Because if enough of us abandon the stations that use computer-created playlists that vary so little from one day to the next and listen instead to the stations that use live DJs who remember what “variety” actually means, perhaps the advertisers will take notice, and then perhaps they’ll encourage other radio stations to change their ways.

And then maybe, just maybe, radio will be worth listening to again.

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