TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Well, it’s official. America is down to six radio stations. Six. Total. I say this because, having spent the last few days traveling though Detroit, Dayton, Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando and Tallahassee, I have heard them all, the same six stations.
Over and over.
Half the fun of traveling used to be renting a car, starting the engine, and flicking the knob to the local airwaves. Depending on which part of the country you were in, you might hear Murray the K, from New York City, screaming about the Beatles, or some laid-back, West Coast-type saying, “Can you dig it?” or some hillbilly named Chester Winchester, spinning a country song with a title like “I’m So Lonely, The Dog Looks Good” and crowing
“All-rahhhty-rooski, fo’ks, ah know y’all gonna like this one . . .”
The thing was, Chester did know. Because he was from there. He broadcast from a tower on the outskirts of town, and if he played something people liked, they told him so the next morning at the coffee shop or the hardware store. Or they called him during his nine-hour shift.
“Hey, Chester? This here’s Luke from over Stillwater County. Play that slow one by Hank Williams again, will ya? I’m trying to get Doris here to marry me
. . .”
Nowadays, Chester doesn’t pick the music. It comes down from some consulting firm that programs hundreds of stations just like it. The big, powerful record companies push the product they want sold. The playlist is faxed from headquarters. The disc jockeys — now called “radio personalities”
— don’t have accents, or input.
And Chester doesn’t work there anymore. Somewhere, Foreigner is laughing
Here are the six radio stations you will find no matter where you go in this country:
1) Morning Zoo/Top 40. This one features a couple of “crazy” guys with catchy names — Mike & Ike, Chip N’ Dale, Jim & the Mad Man — who sound as if they’re talking through their noses. They scream, do impersonations, ring buzzers and bells, and, most of all, in between Madonna songs, laugh at their own jokes. Because nobody else will.
2) Classic Rock. You’ll know this station, because it plays “Cold As Ice” by Foreigner once every 13 minutes. In between, you will hear Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Led Zeppelin and other groups we should have blown up in the ’70s, when we had the chance. Classic Rock is the younger half of . . .
3) Oldies Rock. I remember one of the first oldies stations, down in Miami. It played doo-wop tunes from the Spaniels, the Del-Vikings, the Crests. It was unique and small. Nowadays there is an Oldies Station every traffic light, playing the same Beatles/Chubby Checker/Temptations records over and over, in a desperate attempt to convince those of us old enough to remember these songs that we are still hip.
Which we aren’t.
4) Young Country. Once upon a time, country stations gave you the best feel for America. Small-time country artists could make a record in their garage and drive it to the stations themselves. And the disc jockeys were important to the isolated farmers who tuned them in.
“Ah’m gonna play a new one fuh ya from Tammy Wynette in jus’ a second, but first, ah see there’s a thundah-storm a-comin’, so y’all better finish plantin’ early this mo’nin’ . . . “
Nowadays country music is a giant, billion-dollar industry that has its own awards shows, theme parks, and mega-stars. I saw Garth Brooks meeting with Newt Gingrich last week to discuss the arts. Garth Brooks and Newt Gingrich? What kind of charm can country radio have after that?
“You light up my . . . ” zzzzzzz
5) Easy Listening/Soft Rock. It doesn’t really matter what music these stations play, because you are asleep halfway through the song. The only human contact you get is a voice, which sounds like it just finished making love, crooning the phrase, “Less talk, more music.” The polar opposite of this, of course, is . . .
6) All Talk/News/Information. These stations have the constant sound of typewriters in the background, as a deep voice bellows “All news, all the time . . . ” In between, they have a) Rush Limbaugh, b) Paul Harvey c) updates by accent-less clones who sound like they’re trying out for CNN.
You listen to any of these stations in Louisiana or in Maine, it’s the same thing. Radio has fallen into the Homogenization of America, as have airports, which now all feature TCBY Yogurt and Cinn-a-bon shops, and shopping malls, which all contain the same Gap and Athlete’s Foot stores. Whatever happened to local identity? Regional flavor? Pretty soon five companies will own the whole country, and each will have 200 radio stations, sounding exactly the same, and there won’t be a lot of point in traveling, because wherever you go, you’ll be home.
You know what? I miss Chester. I really do.