Saturday night, just two hours before Tony Rodriguez planned to pull the plug on Fab 105, people were still begging.
“Man, I hope you find a way to keep the station on the air,” they’d say, stopping by the corner of the suburban Dallas theater where I was trying — unsuccessfully — to interview the object of their affection. Tony’s dark eyes, moist from telling me how, say, the fact of creation testifies to the existence of the Creator, would dry quickly as he turned to face his beseechers.
“Sorry, dude,” he’d intone. “The Beatles die in Dallas. Again.” And he’d lose his train of thought. Again.
So I don’t have the whole story on why Rodriguez, 37-year-old heir to a local Spanish-language and Christian broadcasting empire, decided last August to devote one of his frequencies to “peace and love.” Nor do I know why that concept entailed playing only music of the Beatles, covers of Beatles songs, and selected solo compositions of ex-Beatles. Tony’s decision to end “Fab 105″ is similarly shrouded in mystery, though I think it had to do with the fact that his “electronic art” experiment (as he described it) was costing him wads of money. But more than that, Tony, like so many others in the radio business these days, wants out. As I drove home from the goodbye party (the first of three, all sold out), I listened to Fab 105 crackle its last amid the more powerful R&B and country signals around it.
“Hey, the gallery’s closed now,” Tony was saying. “Please exit to the left.”
I’ll miss the Fab not for the barrage of Beatles (though John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and William Shatner’s version of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” are both rare pleasures). I’ll miss it because Tony, in lieu of commercials, brought the rare gift of weirdness to the dial.
“Imagine a perfect robot …” he’d say, in one script about ants read by his DJ, Chris Bjork. “With all its technology, mankind can’t build a creature so complex. When we see an ant, we squash it. Yet God created ants, and God created us. Think about it!”
And I would think. Not about ants per se, but about the little shudder of joy that comes only from hearing something unexpected on the radio.
I’ve just put in a year as a public radio reporter, and I’m not excusing myself when I say that these days, most radio sucks like an ill wind on its way back to hell. For reasons I still can’t understand, our audio landscape is cursed with a dullness so severe it’s macabre. Sure, a few maverick college and community stations inject a little anarchy into the mix. But no other medium favors the shrieks of undead creatures like Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis and Christopher Cross so completely over breathing, viable artists. No medium does more to catapult obese sociopaths and condescending windbags to fame. No other medium survives on ads so irritating, pledge drives so unctuous, gimmicks so desperate. Even television, that vast wasteland, regularly sprouts weird little seedlings (“Dr. Katz,” “X-Files”) that are nearly unthinkable on blasted Planet Radio.
And despite all its scrapings at the bottom of every known common denominator, this could be the medium’s golden age compared with what’s to come. Although it got little notice, a major provision in last year’s Telecommunications Act lifted most restrictions on radio ownership. The minute the bill passed, the industry entered a consolidation frenzy that shows no signs of abating. Just last week, two Dallas-area radio moguls, Evergreen and Chancellor, merged to form the country’s second largest radio corporation, projected to control 103 stations. And info-defense empire Westinghouse, which quickly grabbed most major-market stations, now owns a billion-dollar chunk of the airwaves.
Compare this with the mom-and-pop industry radio was just a few years ago, and it ‘s easy to see why most watchdog groups consider the medium a lost cause. Just 10 years ago, the government limited frequency ownership to seven FM and seven AM stations in the entire country. Now broadcasting empires can own up to eight in each city. Ever more corporatized and formatted, “radio as a dynamic force has been all but destroyed,” says Andy Schwartzmann, president of the nonprofit Media Access Project.
And if you’re a public radio listener, don’t expect many creative surprises there either. With government support drying up, National Public Radio has cut back on innovative shows like “Soundprint,” the premier radio documentary program of its kind. Local stations, meanwhile, have joined the formatting craze, “test marketing” symphonic movements and jazz pieces to see what their demographics like best.
Reporters and producers on the lower end of the dial sound clinically depressed these days. “It’s truly sad out there,” Robert Smith, a reporter for Seattle public radio station KUOW, says. “There’s no incentive for anyone with talent to do creative things.”
But Ira Glass, who for many years reigned as the king of weirdness at NPR, disagrees. “In non-commercial radio … nobody really cares that much if you’re funnier. You can fly under the radar at a typical public radio station,” he says. “Most reporters would kill for that kind of freedom.”
Glass, now at WBEZ in Chicago, produces “This American Life,” a program heard on 87 public radio stations — and, in RealAudio, on the Web. On it, odd people like monologist Spalding Gray, former elf David Sedaris, producer Scott Carrier and Salon music columnist Sarah Vowell explore odd themes, from the fear of Starbucks to the cruelty of children. Surprise: Thus far, no listeners have died. In fact, no one even complains, Glass says, “except when we have animals eating each other.”
But it will take more than a couple of well-placed weirdos like Glass and Tony Rodriguez to keep radio from continuing its slide into a sort of bad porn for the ears (and trust me, you do not want to imagine the bodies of most radio professionals engaged in that activity). Industry experts continue to feed us dull and stupid programming because we stay at the trough. Imagine, instead, calling a mechanized station every day to demand a human DJ. Imagine boycotts of advertisers on formats that play Bryan Adams more than once a year. Imagine all the people leaving their narrowcasted niches and listening to each others’ music, to the confoundment of marketers everywhere.
Or imagine you’re an ant about to be squashed. Think about it.