Thursday, September 11, 2008
(In case you're coming into this tale in the middle- over the course of a few columns I've been outlining my experiences in FM radio during the last days of format free, free-form broadcasting. It all makes maximum sense if you start at the beginning with Radio Radio Part 1.)
While it has been entertaining reminiscing about my days working in commercial radio and the gentle glow of nostalgia has taken the sting out of many of these events, it was painful, confusing and frustrating living through the end days of free-form radio. It is easy to demonize Lee Abrams and the other corporate powers that be that helped usher in these changes but in hindsight it seems they were inevitable. I'll freely admit that in my most angry moments I have imagined a toasty spot in one of the lower levels of hell that is reserved for Abrams and his ilk- but history has proved him right (or at least successful) and besides he has redeemed himself somewhat in more recent times as one of the leading architects of satellite radio.
The relevant question remains, is there a place in today's world for a format-less radio station that does not cater to a lowest common denominator by shoving familiar hits and classic tracks consistently down listeners throats? A glance at today's radio landscape offers a divided answer. On the one hand, commercial radio has never been dumber or more predictable- yet on the other side of the equation we now have more alternatives at our disposal than ever before. It is hard to deny that "the masses" generally only want to hear "hits" and songs they know. Whether this is simple, basic human nature- or because that is what they have always been spoon fed, is for someone wiser than me to figure out. Interestingly though, things have never been more diverse in the fringes of the medium (college radio, internet radio, public radio and the relatively new world of satellite radio.) Bob Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour" is the epitome of free-form spirit at its most creative and there are literally hundreds of stations that categorize themselves as "free form" at Live 365.com, LA's KCRW not only survives but seems to flourish with a format- less approach that covers a wide range of non hit driven musical content and even many major market commercial stations are offering weekend and late night "specialty shows" where they can get more adventurous with what they play.
It seems that when a radio outlet is freed from the shackles of having to cater to the all mighty advertising dollar, they can usually generate enough of a niche audience to survive. I know from looking at the listener stats and reading the E Mails that we get from around the world that we have attracted a loyal audience for our internet radio broadcast, Six Degrees Traveler but I have no illusions that the program could survive on a commercial station- and maybe that's the way it should be. In a world where big businesses have been allowed to buy up the commercial airwaves, maybe those of us looking for the "freakier" side of the musical spectrum should just be content that we now have so many alternatives to fill our needs. Perhaps this is the ultimate victory for the concept of "free-form" broadcasting- the fact that it's spirit survives so strongly in the nooks and crannies of the airwaves is a testament to the viability of its original premise.
To celebrate the spirit of creative radio here some links to stations and programs that very much keep the "free-form" spirit alive. May they ever keep their "freak flag" flying