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June 23rd, 2004 Richard Shirk | Music Stories
 

Zombie Radio

WW listened to 24 hours of corporate radio and lost our minds. We did it for you, Portland.

     
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IMAGE: ERIC KILKENNY
1:15 am Saturday, June 12, 2004. 19 hours, 10 minutes in.

"Numb" by U2 is pulsing out of the radio when I notice that I'm starting to see things--a black cube over my left shoulder, a towel hanging in the corner of the room that seems to twitch. Something that appears to be half-toad, half-rabbit lurks behind the heating vent under my kitchenette, so I cover it with a pillow.

The hallucinations start 19 hours into my 24-hour stint of listening to 94.7 FM KNRK. For one week, from June 3-11, the Portland rock station posted an 83-question survey on its website and more than 7,000 people--like me--told KNRK what we dig and why.

The timing of the station's survey seems telling, coming just a month after KNRK made headlines for firing morning shock jocks Marconi and Tiny, along with producer Nik Miles. Both Marconi and station manager Jack Hutchinson issued public apologies after the disc jockey used the audio track of American contractor Nicholas Berg's beheading in Iraq as fodder for on-air wisecracks. This incident occurred just seven months after KNRK replaced morning-show hosts Daria O'Neill and Gustav with Marconi, who the company then sent to Seattle, planning to groom him as the next nationally syndicated shock-jock celebrity.

Writers, especially in music circles, have been complaining about corporate radio ownership for years (see News, page 13), but now even station officials like KNRK director Mark Hamilton admit that it's time to listen to local listeners again.

I'm trying to shake off my own rock snobbery as I set off on this 24-hour listening tour. I'm hoping that by wading into the radio waves of one Portland station until I'm totally immersed, I will be able to hear the real voices in an industry programmed by numbers, points and markets.

*

7:25 am Friday. One and a half hours in.

KNRK is playing recorded messages from listeners. One wants to hear more punk. Another guy asks to hear more Tool. The next song is "Float On," by dues-paying indie-rockers Modest Mouse, and the song is popular enough that I will hear it seven more times in the next 23 hours. As any critic or politician might tell you, democracy, in life and music, can be problematic.

It's easy to complain about the phenomenon of corporate radio, how markets are fed the same playlists, the music sounds repetitive and stale, and even stations in culturally rich cities like Portland have no room for local musicians.

The catalyst for this industry change occurred in 1996, when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which loosened Federal Communications Commission limits on station ownership; previously, a company could own only two stations in a market, and no more than 28 stations nationwide.

Now, KNRK's parent company, Entercom, owns more than 100 stations nationally, seven of those in Portland. Still the company is dwarfed by the corporate giant Clear Channel, which dominates 89 of the top 100 radio markets with its ownership of 1,200 stations in the country, including five in Portland.

*

10:12 am Friday. Four hours and eight minutes in.

The latest Blink-182 song, a slickly produced suburban reggae number, plays as I read the printout of KNRK's online survey. It asks me to list my favorite CD (Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express by the Go-Betweens), and to rank on a 1-to-5 scale how much I value bands like Midnight Oil (3), Nirvana (3) and Radiohead (5).

My answers and everybody else's will be used as an "artist thermometer" to gauge how to give people what they want, says Mark Hamilton, station director since 1995. It's also a tool to let listeners know that KRNK has "taken a very strong position on inviting feedback," he adds.

What seems distinctive or even retro about the survey is that the station claims it will favor listener opinions over the forces of demographics to determine its new format. Maybe this will trigger a move away from dick-and-fart jokes on the morning shows and the warmed-over pop songs during afternoon drivetime. To me, this sounds like a glimmer of hope for a dead format, a computerized version of the old request line now based on local listeners' collective meta-tastes.

Even so, I think about questions KNRK doesn't ask, like: How does it feel to listen to a radio station ("We sell fun," says one radio ad) for a solid day and not hear a live human voice?

*

11:10 pm. 11 hours and five minutes in.

"Give It Away" by Red Hot Chili Peppers. I've heard one Radiohead song today. I've heard Coldplay twice. I've heard 10 Chili Peppers songs and 10 Green Day songs.

What I'm hearing on this station suggests an even broader kind of disconnect. In a generation tethered to iPods and the Internet, does the human element even matter anymore?

"There have been times when radio has been much more diverse and, subjectively speaking, interesting," says Kembrew McLeod, a contributing music critic for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, and an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. "Knowing you're listening to a DJ who is broadcasting and is connected to it creates a sense of community. It's trying to recapture that sense of community rather than just a demographic. "

12:29 am, 18 hours and 25 minutes in.

Here's one: "Closing Time" by Semisonic. In high school, I washed dishes at a small restaurant in the Midwest, and when this song played, I wondered why there wasn't a John Hughes movie set in some Iowa steakhouse. Maybe this short-span nostalgia thing isn't such a bad thing.

Even though radio has always been a business, hearing a song that reminds me of 1998 makes me think about the personal impact of the medium. Remembering a time when listeners used to feel a personal connection with radio fuels the criticism about what the business has become, according to writer Jeff Sharlet. "As a reality, the 'public airwaves' are close to extinct," wrote Sharlet in Harper's last December. "Even proponents of regulation now fight for it, perversely, in the language of business, touting ownership caps as a means to preserve the 'marketplace of ideas.'"

In the press, radio is often used as a convenient example illustrating the dangers of globalization, but it used to be about a shared experience, sounds that hinged on the relationship between the DJ and the listener. Local on-air personalities could nurture local music trends that led to sweeping national cultural changes.

In 1952 in Cleveland, for example, DJ Alan Freed promoted "The Moondog Coronation Ball," one of the first true rock-'n'-roll concerts, and it sparked a riot. In 1966, a Pittsburgh promoter found a used copy of a 3-year-old single, "Hanky Panky," and after becoming popular locally, the song became a No. 1 hit nationally for Tommy James and the Shondells. In the late '70s, the BBC's John Peel helped punk bands like the Fall, the Sex Pistols and the Clash find an audience, and their musical influence still resonates through modern rock 'n' roll. In the 1970s in Portland, everyone woke up to the voice of Craig Walker on 62 KGW.

I've been listening to robots for more than 18 hours.

*

5:55 am Saturday. 23 hours and 50 minutes in.

By the time "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" by R.E.M. comes on just before 6 am, I'm shaky and exhausted. I'm also happy to hear a subversive pop band snuck into the mix of Blink-182, Offspring and Green Day, the pop-punk pillars of KNRK's playlist. I've drunk a lot of soda pop and heard 11 songs by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but they've all been the lame cash-out singles, not the punk-funk party anthems that made them a good band until 1993.

At least I'm not hallucinating anymore.

If anything, KNRK for 24 hours was actually an easier listen than I expected: I did hear the new Cure single three times, after all. But aside from a renewed faith in Robert Smith, I also have decided one thing.

It's easy to be hyperbolic about the soul-depleting impact of technology in order to further an argument, harder to remember that radio could still be a cold and impersonal medium back when local DJs talked to us over the air and human fingers worked the faders.

Pop radio has always been a business, and program directors have usually catered to popular tastes. But at least there was someone there on the other side of the microphone.

Fuck it. I'm going to bed.

FULL LISTENING LOG

6:05 am Friday, June 11, to 6:05 am Saturday, June 12.

7:04 am: It’s too early for "Brass Monkey." If there is a Brass Monkey window in every day, it usually lasts for about 45 minutes and is sometime between the hour of 10 pm and 11 pm.

7:25 am: Having interesting bands mixed into the programming is a real con. "Float On" by Modest Mouse is playing right now and is a glimmer of false hope. Earlier, they had tape-recorded messages from people who had called in requests. One guy wants to hear more punk. Another guy want to hear Tool. Democracy is problematic.

9:09 am: Pearl Jam is the last to weigh in from the early-‘90s set, a group of about 12 different bands and artists that alternative radio has camped on for about a decade. I’ve already heard Offspring two times in three hours.

10:15 am: "Californication" by Red Hot Chili Peppers. This is one of the those dozen bands that modern alternative radio is built on. Of these bands, the ones that didn’t break up haven’t aged well. Neither has the format.

2:31 pm: "Seven Nation Army" by White Stripes. This is proof that there are decent, overplayed bands—beyond Nirvana—that could be played on modern rock radio.

8:59 pm: "Paranoid," Green Day. I’m getting kinda paranoid, actually. This is the eighth Green Day song with Offspring jockeying for the No. 2 position with seven songs. Also, between not sleeping well (Green Circles rules), getting up early and listening to alternative rock format radio for about 15 hours now, I’m starting to see things out of the corner of my eye. It’s getting worse. When I look at anything more than four feet away, it starts to pulsate and move.

9:15 pm: The guitar intro to "Yello Led Better" by Pearl Jam always makes me think I’m going to hear either Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn. Vedder’s vocals here are almost certainly a track he never got around to finishing. If I’d been born about five years earlier, when I got stoned in college I would have deciphered this rather than Sigur Rós. "I don’t know if I’ve got a front or a back. Wanna feel it? I’m a boy and I won’t go away," that’s what Vedder says. I think.

9:30 pm: More white-guy reggae. I think it’s pretty funny when white kids from Omaha like 311 try to sing like Bob Marley. Maybe if they, I dunno, spent money on records other than just tattoos and dope, we wouldn’t have this problem.

9:41 pm: "I broke into your house last night." I’ve heard this song about three times now, and I have no clue who sings it. The lyrics are about breaking into a girl’s house to leave notes to her because the guy is pretending to be shy. Morrissey does the same thing. "Leave an empty page, in your diary. Won’t you write me in?" Morrissey sings, which also harks back to a lot of other reoccurring themes in song lyrics. The Smiths say, "Scratch my name in your arm/ with a fountain pen/ that’s how I know you really love me." Somewhere on tape is a Beta song about "Draw a heart around/ our initials/ on the glass of/ a bullet train/ across Europe."

10:15 pm: Alice in Chains? No, new STP. Every song has the whole "yeeaahhh" part in it. I can accept vocal styles having that kind of thing. Like when Mark E Smith says, "Ah everything-ah all-ah qui-rky-ah." Alice in Chains. Sabbath. Sleepy. From my desk, I see eight cans of Diet Coke. I will now have another during the high fretboard solo while thinking about seeing Scott Weiland get hit in the eye with an apple at a show in San Francisco in 1995.

10:30 pm: "Float On" by Modest Mouse for the fifth time. One of the surprises of the past few hours is that Modest Mouse is getting radio play sandwiched in between Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana. And it’s very rare for an album that is selling a lot to be really good and pretty subversive and dark. If you listen to Good News for People Who Love Bad News, there are many underlying themes which are tied together very well over the course of the album. Mainly, it’s death. And cake. Rock and roll is very Orphic.

10:33 pm: Soundgarden. "Spoon Man." This is a heavy-sounding song that I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about. I thought maybe it was just a lazy composition, but I think now that it’s about heroin. The line about all my friends are Indian and brown and red? I think maybe he’s talking about poppies.

10:45 pm: If I stare at the blinds out the window, I can see an elephant out there. It’s terrifying. It’s hovering there and drops out of sight like floating balloon, but not before you catch its beady little wide eye looking at you, its trunk curled in, kind of like a backwards S. I’m going to draw the blinds now. The song is overcooked and unrecognizable, and I think real drummers sound just fine. Things are moving in my peripheral vision. My towel is hanging across the room on a peg by a door, and I keep seeing it twitch.

11:10 pm: "Give It Away" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’ve heard one Radiohead song today. I’ve heard Coldplay twice. I’ve heard close to 10 Chili Peppers songs and at least 10 Green Day songs. I give them about 20 minutes before playing another Blink-182 song. The problem with radio is that I think it’s going for a demographic of younger teens who are tethered either to the Internet, MTV or cell phones. Do kids even listen to the radio anymore now that everyone has an iPod?

11:25 pm: Commercials. In this Coke commercial, the guy really wants a Coke. He says he ate an entire tub of popcorn at a movie with a hot girl on a first date. He says he wants a sip of the soda pop but the girl drank it all. And then she wants to make out but she drank all the Coke even though he paid for it. So his mouth is dry. First of all, that’s not true. Girls don’t actually want to make out at movies. Nobody wants to make out in movies. If they do, then they are creeps. She doesn’t share her Coke. So what if he paid for it? Did he ever think to share any of the popcorn? Huh?

11:59 pm: Dead air, lasts for about a minute. It feels so strange, even uncomfortable, to have nothing but silence when you’ve been listening to something for 18 hours.

12:06 am: One of the two very popular Blink-182 songs currently on the radio, the fifth time I’ve heard it today. I can see a black cube behind my left shoulder if I turn my head quickly. Across the room by the sofa is a lamp. In the light that is filtered laterally through the window shade is a moving cloud; it’s in the entire corner of the room and moves like smoke or a jellyfish. There’s a spot on the wall that’s moving a lot but staying in the same place. I walked up to it and the spot was still moving.

12:25 am: More Chili Peppers. This one has Anthony Kiedis rap/sing a scat part. Scat can mean either an improvised vocal or it can mean excrement. This is both.

12:29 am: Here’s one. "Closing Time" by Semisonic. Back at the steakhouse in the Midwest during high school, this was a big hit on the radio station in the kitchen. When the song would play, I would think about why there wasn’t a John Hughes movie set in a Midwestern steakhouse. Maybe this short-span nostalgia thing isn’t such a bad thing.

12 55 am: This Sublime song is about not liking war. I wish Sublime wouldn’t have recorded any of their songs.

1:08 am: The new Beastie Boys single for the third time. There are a lot of reasons why this isn’t that great of a single. The sample is annoying. The vocals are too low in the mix. Maybe they mean to do that because they don’t want us to know that they aren’t saying anything. The chorus is like "Ch-ch-ch-check it out/ Wo-wo-wo-work it out," and Mike D sounds like someone’s uncle. Can you be 40 and still be in a bratty hip-hop band without being a complete joke?

1:15 am: U2. "Numb." This is exactly the right song. I, however, am numb while actually approaching 6 am, and this listening jag is passing more quickly than I imagined. I also just imagined, I suppose, that I saw some sort of toad/rabbit looking at me through the heating vent at the base of the kitchenette. Just now I covered the vent with cushions. Anyway, U2 really fell apart, didn’t they?

1:52 am: I think this is the second time hearing "What It’s Like" by Whitey Ford. Honestly, it could be a lot worse. I remember hearing this three times in eight hours back when it came out, back when I was working in that steakhouse in the Midwest. These morals aren’t very deep. Aren’t very profound. But at least it’s not about getting a party started. In rock music, things can always, always be worse.

2:05 am: "Californication" for the second time. This isn’t a very good song, either. However, this song and "Superman" by Three Doors Down and "Water’s Edge" by Seven Mary Three and "What It’s Like" by Whitey Ford are all songs I have heard during this experiment that share the same guitar intro. And the solo from "Superman" is lifted from Judas Priest. Chili Peppers start to be a really terrible band when they start sounding so goddamn earnest all the time.

2:14 am: Nirvana single. Third time. I never really got to know this song when the Best Of album came out. Radio makes you listen to things repeatedly and get to know them whether they are good or not. Hopefully you gain something from that. Sometimes you just want to jump out of a window.

3:30 am: Usually I feel like going to bed, or at least curling up into a fetal position at three in the morning, rather than the jumping around that Cyprus Hill is encouraging me to do for the second time this evening. Somewhere in this city, there may be a group of people actually willing to jump around while listening to this radio station at this time of night. They are probably listening to a CD at a party or at a bar, however.

3:37 am: "Pretty in Pink." Isn’t she?

4:11 am: "I hate everything about you!" says this Creed-o band. There are so many more subtle and interesting ways to say the exact same thing. Take the Cars, who were by no means a band that changed the course of rock ’n’ roll history. But here’s the genius of the Cars: "You’re all I’ve got tonight." A sardonic double entendre either sincere or about lowered expectations. "Let the good times roll." Either a fuck-you, or an invitation to the after-hours. As soon as I find out who these guys are who are singing the over-earnest Creed thing, maybe I’ll send them a memo about understatement. Maybe a copy of Panorama.

4:18 am: It’s the guy that broke into the girl’s house again. To tell a girl he broke into her house last night to leave her a note was kinda/sorta endearing around 11:30 pm. At 4 am, you’re just a creep.

4:38 am: Is it Soundgarden? Foo Fighters? Nobody knows. Is it Quiet Riot or Twisted Sister? The subtle differences, to the untrained or tired ear, could sometimes seem nonexistent.

5:44 am: Slipknot fades into "Float On" by Modest Mouse for the eighth time. I would imagine that if you are a caveman and you’ve been up for close to a day on the open plains of the Serengeti, you are probably in some dire situation where being nervous and jumpy about things that don’t exist is a plus for your tired, caveman self. Listening to the radio in Portland, it’s just unsettling.

5:59 am: "What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?" by R.E.M. I’ve come to a lot of conclusions. Radio is no longer run by real people. If it is, I hate them. Let the robots run things. I’ll hate them, too. Why? ‘Cause they earned it. Of course KNRK should ask us what we want to hear to play. We are who radio is for. Machines can’t cater to that. Radio used to be something. It didn’t used to be this painful. I pronounce radio as dead as Alan Freed. Whatever. There is no alternative radio because there is no alternative. Fuck it. I’m going to bed.

 
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