Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Be A Man For Chrissakes!

I have hated the radio for years. I think it started when I was a painter at Le Moyne College in the summer of 1997 and my fellow brush-jockeys would listen to the regular radio for 8 hour days upon end. I discovered some disturbing trends during marathon 8-hour radio listening sessions that I hadn't noticed in smaller intervals.

I noticed that the radio tended to repeat several songs over the course of the day. It has always been my contention that a radio station should never -- EVER -- play the same song more than once a day. It just doesn't make sense. Maybe the only exception would be a brand new song that is maybe two weeks old or less. But that's it. However, it became apparent that song were being run into the ground. Songs that I hated became interminable four to five times over the course of a work day. Even songs I liked or had the potential to like were ruined.

Those stations that didn't play the same song multiple times -- the "no-repeat workday" stations -- were even more insidious. They would not repeat songs throughout the day, but would rather repeat the same nine-hour block of songs every single day from 8am-5pm. They might shuffle the playlist, but you could count on hearing every song five times throughout the normal work week.

What also struck me was how awful and bland the music was becoming. Radio has always been a commercial venture, but never had I seen radio stations pander to the lowest common denominator. It seemed the quality of songwriting had really gone to the shitter. Once a band broke through with one song, they would release another three or four shitty songs, which would automatically be put into rotation by the knee-jerk radio stations who wanted to crank out the hits.

I'm not exposing any secrets, but commercial radio is crap. Incidentally, you can attribute much of the homogenization of commercial radio to the idiots at Clear Channel who reward mediocrity and refuse to take any chances whatsoever, but that's for another post.

The upshot is, when satellite radio came around, I got very excited. Forget the commercial-free aspect of the format (an admitted bonus), I was glad that there would be more channels with more formats of music. And it would be subscriber-driven, not advertiser-driven, which means stations could come up with their own playlists and not worrya bout repeating the same rotations over and over. They actually employed real-live DJs, who actually put together well thought-out playlists, instead of picking from some kind of corporate-approved menu of songs.

I got my XM radio a few years ago, and for the most part, I love it. Not having commercials is pretty huge, but there are so many other benefits. They have very specifically-defined stations with certain audiences in mind (my favorites are The Rhyme, The Verge and XMU). They have real DJs who don't talk in the middle of the music. On some stations, you could go days and never hear the same song twice. It exposes me to bands and songs I never would have otherwise heard (and it has given me direction in much of my CD-buying). It is the best radio for long trips, since I can listen to concerts or comedy or talk radio, or even TV simulcasts. You never have to worry about changing the channel when you get to a new city. It carries all the hockey radio broadcasts (and baseball for those who like that kind of thing).

There are some complaints, of course. I wish their comedy channels would play more full-length concerts or comedy performances, instead of switching between well-known and mediocre comedians. And boy, if there was ever a question about the dearth of good stand up comedy in this country, satellite pretty much proves it. Also, my music station of choice -- The Rhyme, the rap station -- plays way way way too much Tupac and Too $hort and mainstream hits from The Notorious B.I.G. and Salt-N-Pepa. I was really hoping The Rhyme would celebrate lesser-known rap from the '80s and '90s instead of harping on the so-called classics. Overall, it's still a good station, but I wish I could throw a playlist up there every once in a while.

The thing that got me hooked on my XM, though, is Opie and Anthony. I had been a Howard Stern quasi-fan since high school, since he was basically the only game in town where I lived. I loved that format of radio: comedy disguised as talk radio. But I felt that toward the last few years (especially after the Super Bowl/Janet Jackson controversy), Stern had become very dull, almost unlistenable at times. He railed against the FCC and censorship (although, ironically, he was silent when his arch-nemesis Imus was fired), and then talked about his ratings for hours upon end. His ego made him less funny.

Enter Opie & Anthony. They were basically the soundtrack of 2006 for me. I listened to them nearly every second I was in the car. They could make a 4-hour drive seem like twenty minutes. They weren't always "radio gold," but I found myself laughing out loud to myself more times in six months than I had for about four years listening to Stern. They seemed much more versed in "comedy" than Stern, in its history, its cliches, its conventions. They went the vulgar route, but more often found humor in hypocrisy of celebrities or events in the news. Rather than having a naked woman in studio every day, they would play clips from the internet, and even if the clips were decades old, mine huge laughs from them.

Flash forward to a couple weeks ago, and now I am disgusted. O&A had a bit where a homeless man made some lascivious comments about making illicit advances toward Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice and Queen Elizabeth II. They laughed along, but they did not make the comments themselves. Yet XM saw fit to suspend them for 30 days, not broadcasting their show (even though they are, ironically, still on regular radio) and suspending all rebroadcasts and reruns. Basically, XM, a company that advertises itself as having no censorship, censored one of its biggest draws.

I am 100% sure of the reason for this: XM is getting ready to merge with Sirius, the other player in the satellite radio game. In order for this to be approved, it must meet with the approval of the FCC, who, it is very clear, is in the pocket of the Bush Administration. (See their refusal to investigate the NSA wiretapping as proof.) Since XM didn't want to draw the ire of the Republican-influenced FCC, they had to punish Opie and Anthony for saying such mean things about two of the president's favorite ladies (three if you include Laura Bush).

Now, for better or worse, I have heard O&A say some of the most ruthlessly, insanely degrading things about many women. Just listen to their opinions about Tyra Banks some day. But only now are they being called into question? Do you think that this controversy would have been a blip on the radar if they were talking about Hillary Clinton? Or Nancy Pelosi? Or even a lesser human like Ann Coulter? Of course not. I can guarantee that XM got pressure from either the FCC or the White House that if they didn't do something to those bad men, the merger would be in jeopardy.

XM, of course, claims that it was due to "complaints" by listeners. Why, then, are listeners cancelling subscriptions left and right? Why are advertisters dropping their sponsorships? As much as I love the concept of satellite radio, I truly hope this blows up in XM's face. I hope that they are actually punished financially for their cowardice.

I'm not going to smash my radio or cancel my subscription, but consider this my strongly worded letter.

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