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No static at all: Can Big Brother at the radio station foretell the future of the real estate industry?

[This is a multi-stop time-travel journey. I’m writing this text, here within these brackets, on June 28th, 2008. I’m reprising a BloodhoundBlog post from September 15th, 2006, that in its turn reprises a PresenceOfMind.net post from September 14th, 2004, which in its turn is unearthing a rant I wrote in 1996. It will all make sense if you let it. This is more birthday celebration — the subject is disintermediation — but I happened to think of this because we latched onto Radio Paradise, today, an amazingly excellent Triple-A internet radio station in Paradise, CA. All of this fits together, I promise, and the argument about media from 1996 is still right on point. One of the things that I, personally, love about BloodhoundBlog, is that our audience has always been so outrageously bright. It’s very liberating for me to be able to be my whole self at work. Never doubt my gratitude. –GSS]

 
No static at all: Can Big Brother at the radio station foretell the future of the real estate industry?

I got XM Radio two years ago to the day, yesterday. Two years from now, the whole deal may be done: Between the iPod, streaming internet radio and Wi-Max, the eternal footman may already be snickering for satellite radio. Sic transit gloria mundi — and orbits nearby.

That’s a disintermediation story by itself, and we’re about to nest ourselves two layers deeper in order to talk about massive, earth-shaking cases of media disintermediation. The argument made here parallels the one made earlier this week by Jim Cronin at The Real Estate Tomato: The exponential growth of bandwidth increases the power of individuals at the expense of elites.

But: I could just as easily argue the contrary: Feeding Dan Rather to the lions is exactly what a Roman Emperor would do to sustain his power while seeming to placate the mob.

That’s a larger question than I’m prepared to settle on a Friday night. Instead, we can think about the future of real estate while we revisit the history of radio. There’s quite a lot here that relates to weblogging, as well — which is no accident, inasmuch as blogging is a form of broadcasting. This is me writing two years ago, then, in turn, quoting from fiction I wrote in the summer of 1996.

 
“A showroom perfect scale model of Progressive radio for extremely rich middle-aged white people…”

I got XM Satellite Radio in my car yesterday. Cathy got it for me for my birthday, even though my birthday’s not for a couple of months. Some things are worth getting older for. Before I say anything, I want to say that I love it. I grew up on the radio, from my earliest memories to my teen years in darkrooms and, later, long nights working alone in newspaper offices and ad agencies and type shops, all the way up to now, working alone from home and spending hours a day in the car. I’ve always loved the radio, and that’s not an easy thing to do, considering that it’s mostly pretty detestable.

I could say that it’s the music that I love, or wanted desperately to love, but that’s only half true. I came of age at a time when radio at its best was an art form, not just music but a careful selection of music, not just interstitial chatter, but a real conversation between the DJ and the audience, a real connection, as intimate as a phone call, as sweet as a stolen kiss.

I missed the music. Commercial radio, in Phoenix at least, is completely playlist-driven, and only the stupidest, most obvious, most banal, most detestable music makes the playlist. We managed to cure that with MP3s culled from our CDs. I made a do-it-yourself radio station we call WHFO (When Hell Freezes Over, after The Eagles) that plays at random in Apple’s iTunes software. It can surprise and even delight, but it can’t amuse or shock or inspire, because there is no art to it, no selection.

So I miss the DJs of my youth for that reason, but I also miss the personalities of personality radio. Most DJs on the radio now are stone idiots with nothing at all to say. It’s painful when they don’t speak and excruciating when they do.

XM solves half my problem. The music is spectacular, an amazingly broad spectrum. I’m not sure it’s terribly thematic in the way it’s knitted together, but it is so refreshing to hear this much variety that I’m willing to live with a more viscous grade of art.

But there is no personality, not that I’ve heard. The DJs get very few opportunities to talk, and, when they do, they sound entirely too much like public radio — not connected on all circuits to the real world.

But, even so, the music is fantastic. Today for the first time in many years I heard the full medley of “Falling In And Out Of Love/Amie.” In digital stereo the harmonies were breathtaking.

I want for there to be personalities behind this music, but before that I want for there to be this music. I’ve missed it, horribly. Whatever I may have on CD, it can’t surprise me or delight me — much less amuse or shock or inspire me — if I’m selecting for myself. The radio at its very best can be a conversation, or even a stolen kiss, where the CD player can never be more than a monologue, me talking to myself.

It happens that I wrote all around this a few years ago. The headline above, a nice rendering of my favorite spots on XM, is taken from a book I started but never finished about a Progressive DJ who had seen the moment of his greatness flicker. A relevant chunk of that book is extracted below. The book is written in the form of transcripts of radio shows, extended rants. It’s fiction in the sense that the narrator is a made-up person, but the arguments about media — as up-to-the minute as Rathergate — are based in fact.

 
From “Talk Show”

[TRANSCRIPT BEGINS]

[….]

[PAUSE]

Radio exists to sell stuff, but I exist for my own good reasons. I’ve had a less than stellar career in “the business” because I’ve never been willing to stuff my own good reasons in my back pocket, to keep my hands free for somebody else’s agenda. This actually works out to be a pretty good way to hold an audience, and a pretty bad way to hold a job.

Everyone in “the business” gets fired all the time, and I’m not going to go into the many ways I’ve found of getting myself fired over the years. They all boil down to the same thing, anyway: I was more interested in saying what I had to say than what the boss was paying me to say. It didn’t matter that I got better ratings my way. I’m sure you’ve discovered this at your job, too — there is a place in every boss’s mind where he comes to care more about his power and authority than he does about results. It works out that my special talent in this life is finding that place. [CHUCKLES]

Plus I had the disadvantage of coming into “the business” while there were still a few remnants of Progressive radio around. Radio formats are uniformly named with the most vague possible terms, and “Progressive” has got to be the absolute worst. What Progressive radio was, in the earliest days, was a ghetto of the mind that happened to take over the neighborhood.

It’s like this: There were these big powerhouse Rock ‘n’ Roll AM stations in New York and Chicago and L.A., and they were selling zit cream faster than the teenyboppers could sprout zits. And the FCC opened up this brand new spectrum called FM — [SINGS] “no static at all”. And the AM stations wanted to hold a slice of that spectrum, just in case, and they wanted to hold spots for air personalities who maybe liked a drink or two — or a toke or two, or a hit or two — a little more than they should.

And bingo! Out of the trash heap of AM radio, something new was born. Management didn’t give a damn what went out over the FM waves. It was still basically experimental in their eyes, and in the eyes of the FCC. They parked truly talented people who may have had a problem, and whom they hoped would get better. They gave them facilities and air time that was, at first at least, largely commercial free, just because the sales department wasn’t interested in selling low-rent time. They encumbered them with no supervision, just let ‘em run wild.

And they ran wild. The ghettoized air personalities were some of the most talented radio people in the nation, and they played what they wanted to play, and they said what they wanted to say, and a brand new form of radio was born despite the negligence of management. That was Progressive radio, and by now we tend to think of it as slow-talking, stoned-out DJs saying insipid things between Jefferson Airplane records. It wasn’t like that at all…

First, Progressive radio is the progenitor of modern talk radio. Lush Rimshot and Heaping Scorn — am I getting those names right? — like to take credit for that. The radio historians want to talk about Joe Pyne and Long John Nebul. None of that is true. It was Progressive radio that first released people who had something to say on a mass audience. Progressive DJs gave us the first real personality radio, a radio where the DJ unleashed his own true, real self — no script, no “costume”, no playlist — and just churned. Play the same record fifty times in a row? Done. Churn the audience with a two hour monologue? Done. Nobody cared, not at first, and so Progressive radio gave us new ideas about radio just because there was no idiot boss standing in the way.

Second, Progressive radio gave us the incredible variety we used to hear in Rock ‘n’ Roll and never hear in any other genre. In 1965 or ’66 or ’67, a Beatles album was your absolute best entertainment value. The reason was that the Beatles were still locked into the historical idea that a pop album was nothing more than a collection of discrete singles. All of the early Beatles albums consist of nothing but singles, and virtually all of them were hit singles.

The poor Rolling Stones were in a smaller boat, alas. For good or ill, they didn’t have songwriters to match John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and they had nothing like the same chart success. In consequence, in order to match the Beatles album for album, the Stones had to release a lot of material on albums that they would never have thought to release as singles. Bluesy romps and country honks and screaming rants and nihilist chants — the Stones did their singles business in the studio, two tunes or three tunes, then cut loose and had fun.

Is any of this sounding familiar?

Enter Progressive radio. The DJs had no desire to play pop hits, and if station management had any instructions for them at all, it was a demand that the FM stations not pirate the teenyboppers from the zit-creamed AM signal. And there were the Stones singing, “Melody. It was her second name.”

Hah!

That was the sound of Progressive radio. What does it mean? Who knows. But, man!, does it groove!

There was all of this stuff — ’67, ’68, ’69 — all of these freaky people taking all these weird chances, and no one knew how to tell them to stop. It started out that no one cared. No one at the record company cared what the Stones put on their albums; the singles were all that mattered and the albums were just there to take up shelf space so the Beatles wouldn’t get it all. No one cared what the DJs played in the FM ghetto of the mind; the listeners and advertisers were all on AM.

And then, very suddenly, a lot of people did care. Because all of a sudden the money men realized that there was a lot of money being made on what they had thought was marginal product. Album acts like the Doors or the Lovin’ Spoonful were scoring AM hits. And the FM share of the audience in every city was growing hugely. Not just a cleaner signal, a cleaner philosophy.

The teenyboppers had outgrown the zit cream and — to be brutally frank — they needed a music to get laid by. Just so there’s no misunderstanding, please accept it that the purpose of every form of pop music — except rap — is getting laid. I know that we’re supposed to resist that notion, since it encourages the idiot Christians, but it’s true nevertheless.

Anyway, the kids had grown up and they grew into this sound that Progressive radio had become and suddenly there a way to sell beer and concert tickets, at least, a way that no other medium could approach.

And meanwhile, over on Tin Pan Alley, all the hack songwriters were scratching their heads. Who is this Joni Mitchell? Who is this Jim Morrison? For god’s sake, who the hell is Bob Dylan? These people can’t write songs! Not those good old fashioned Tin Pan Alley songs! Hell, they can’t even sing!

And all that was true. For the most part, the songwriting of the singer-songwriters was structurally inferior to a professionally-written song. But the one was real and authentic and painfully raw and the other was as polished and as phony as a wedding cake.

In the good old days, the A&R man from the record label was king. He would pick the act, pick the producer, pick the song, pick the packaging and the promo and the personal appearances. Most important, he would set the amount of the bribes to be paid to radio station managers and DJs to get the airplay he needed to hit the sales figures he projected. It was all very predictable, and, while Rock ‘n’ Roll had been upsetting that predictability at least since Elvis and Buddy Holly, the A&R men had successfully maintained their little fiefdoms.

Until Progressive radio. By giving airplay to the album cuts — and to the backlist of the labels, the acts who had no singles — Progressive radio took away the power of the A&R men. Not to give it to the DJs; Progressive radio was too anarchic for any sort of power base. They gave the power to the listeners, ultimately, fragmenting the listener base in such a way that no central authority could control — or even understand — what was going on.

That was the end of everything, of course. First, when Progressive FM started to make serious money, station management took things firmly in hand and destroyed that beautiful anarchy with the same bland order you find everywhere else on the radio dial. Playlists and logs and canned, syndicated pabulum and radio personalities who were remarkably devoid of any sort of personality.

And second, the fragmentation of the listener base caused a fragmentation of formats. Steppenwolf and James Gang and Black Sabbath were playing a hard and heavy kind of Rock when Led Zeppelin ripped off a weird Bob Dylan chord progression and created Heavy Metal. The folkies and flower power types noodled around with a soft whimsical sound perfectly suited to long-haired women and the men who wanted to peel off their jeans. This eventually became Lite Rock, the radio home of Winnie the Pooh. The Stones parodied country and Bob Dylan flirted with country and some city boys in Los Angeles discovered that Merle Haggard knew a little something about Woody Guthrie that Dylan hadn’t found, and out of all that plus a wry post-modern cynicism came Country Rock, itself later ripped of entirely to become New Country. Plus all those oldies formats, fifties, sixties, Classic Rock — which means seventies — and now, god help us, regurgitated eighties crap.

Disco was a counter-reaction against the splintering of the mass pop audience. Rap ‘n’ Soul is an attempt to hold the herd together. New Country is a refuge for Rock fans who can’t relate to dance beats and refuse to retreat to oldies. I used to work Triple-A — Adult Album Alternative. Very vague. Adult means no teeny-bopper stuff. Album means no singles. Alternative means no A&R men — just a stinking program director, which is worse. What Triple-A really means is a fairly deep playlist of fairly contemporary music that’s not too Lite, not too Folky, not too Heavy, not too Country and black in only the most fetchingly Steppin’ Fetchit of ways. In other words, it’s a showroom perfect scale model of Progressive radio for extremely rich middle-aged white people.

I mean extremely rich. The Triple-A demographic is a median household income of seventy thousand dollars a year. Median — half below, half above. Any other radio format would sell an audience like that financial instruments and vanity cars. But the Triple-A listener doesn’t want to be reminded that he’s rich. He’ll put his money in an ethical mutual fund and drive a huge Swedish luxury car. But at least once a day his favorite radio station is going to play Don Henley singing, “Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,” and he does not want to be reminded that it is he who betrayed the sixties, man.

So, ironically, Triple-A is the ritziest format on the radio, ritzier even — and much bigger — than Classical, but it can’t make money.

And all of these splinter formats are tacit admissions that Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead. Progressive radio didn’t kill Rock; it was just the impetus. FM killed Rock, the explosion of useful bandwidth. AM is a piss-poor signal. Crackly, staticky, and it can’t punch through anything or penetrate very far. All of the Rock powerhouse stations were clear stations, super-high-power stations in big cities broadcasting on frequencies that were cleared of near neighbors by the Feds. A clear station could be heard for hundreds of miles, and that was the point.

Clear stations are the radio analog to TV networks or big-city newspapers or the picture magazines like “Life” and “Look” — low-tech answers to the problem of advertising. But advertisers want to spend the smallest dollar for the biggest return, and technologists want to do what people are willing to pay to have done. Advertisers were willing to pay for a higher-fidelity radio signal that delivered a more tightly-focused audience — and we got FM. Advertisers were willing to pay for television technology that delivered a highly-motivated, monied prospect — and we got cable TV. Advertisers were willing to pay for new printing and distribution systems and we got suburban daily newspapers and extremely narrow-interest magazines.

This has been going on for a long time. The old style of variety TV show was a perfect expression of the old way of doing things. It was a modernized replica of a Vaudeville show, itself an answer to the problem posed by groups of entertainment seekers. How do we entertain mom and dad and the whole brood of kiddies, all in one show? Something for everyone, one size fits all.

That makes sense if you have only one theater or only one TV, or if the technology base of the broadcaster is such that bandwidth is at a premium. But where bandwidth is essentially unlimited, there is no limit on what can be produced, and there is no reason for the consumer — the listener, the viewer, the reader — to permit producers to limit choices. Advertisers want carefully sliced, highly-motivated buyers. Consumers want carefully sliced, tightly-focused product. And the damned Vaudevillians still don’t understand why their theaters are empty.

Clear stations and TV networks and major magazines and the big Hollywood movies studios all gave America a common context, and the name of that context was “pop”. Pop is what’s popular, and what’s popular is what makes the cash registers ring for advertisers in major media. Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller found a way to make a syncopated slave’s music pop. Maybelle Carter took the music of the hills of Virginia and Kentucky and made it pop. A chubby truck driver named Elvis Presley upped the tempo and the volume on a parody of minstrel music and made it pop. A scrawny jewboy named Bob Dylan took Presley’s implicit post-modernism, made it explicit, and by himself created Rock.

This is important. Those who don’t completely damn Dylan insist that his importance ended when he stopped playing acoustic folk ballads. This is untrue. His importance to Rock began when he bounced onto the stage at the Newport Folk Festival with a Stratocaster around his neck. The music he made in 1965 and 1966, much of it with The Band, is the genesis of Rock. Not Rockabilly. Not Surfer Music. Not British Blues from the Stones and the Animals or Electric Skiffle from the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five. The immense blast of sound he delivered with The Band in 1966 is the birthing agony of Rock as a brand new genre of music.

Anyway, pop is a consequence of mass media, of broadcast media. With the explosion of bandwidth that’s been going on since the sixties, we’ve seen the birth of narrowcasting, the production of information and entertainment for very narrow audiences. Obviously, this has destroyed pop. There are those who lament it, the loss of the shared experience that was so common three decades ago. Of course, if we know of those doing the lamenting, it’s because we’re catching their acts on narrowcasting outlets — talk radio, public affairs TV, opinion magazines.

In many ways the narrowcasters still don’t get it, and they still think they have to provide a Vaudevillian’s variety to hold an audience. Just the opposite is true, of course. I don’t want a stereo review in my bicycling magazine, and I surely don’t want a news or sports program on my entertainment TV channel. Progressive radio finally gave the listener at least one choice besides zit cream for hyper-pituitary teens. Narrowcasting gives the consumer ultimate choice over everything. Station management, you will do as we tell you. A&R man, you will do as we tell you. Advertiser, you will do as we tell you. The power of the broadcasters, the power of the Sixth Avenue corporate suite, the power of the men in gray flannel suits — that power ended with the invention of the universal remote control.

Isn’t this cool? And the Internet will ultimately give each and every one of us infinite bandwidth. Somewhere Back East, a fat, bald-headed man just wet the bed…

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