Think about the history of radio as a medium. It has defined entire generations, starting in 1938 with Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast (perhaps the first real demonstration of the medium's power) and Edward R. Murrow's dramatic "This ... is London" WWII transmissions, and continuing into the Fifties, when the pairing of radio and rock & roll turned the youth culture upside down while adults grew apoplectic.
Music blasting from car dashboards and tinny transistor radios was the soundtrack for the Sixties, artists like Buck Owens & the Buckaroos deliberately mixing their songs with the bottom end weak and the treble bright so that it would cut through the static on AM car radios and Earl and Leroy could listen to it in their pickups while hauling ass down gravel backroads. By the late Seventies, with punk and disco battling it out for supremacy of the airwaves, radio was second only to television in defining popular culture.
While that might still hold true two decades later, now, at the millennium, music lovers search the dial in vain to find radio stations that don't sound like they were programmed in a laboratory by a group of scientists. We have Ronald Reagan and his administration's trend of media deregulation in the Eighties to thank for that, mass ownership of stations leading to conglomerates swallowing up frequencies everywhere while depending more and more on consultants and services for programming. The end result is a homogenization of formats nationwide, Classic Rock, Oldies, Adult Contemporary, and country stations sounding exactly the same from Turlock, California, to Long Island.
The only difference, of course, is in the commercials, traffic and weather, and various Morning Zoo clowns yukking it up over their own jokes. If oldies radio is any indication, Elvis, the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Rolling Stones all had about three hits apiece in their entire careers, while Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, and even Jimi Hendrix simply never existed. Locally, FM talk station KJFK, home to Howard Stern, was unceremoniously yanked from the airwaves a few weeks back and replaced by secretary-rock station KHHL.
Gone are the days of road trips in a lumbering Seventies sedan with only a dashboard-speaker AM/FM radio to keep you company. On one such trip through the Midwest, after countless hours of pointing that hood ornament dead ahead and counting every thumping tar strip on I-40 through Central Arkansas, delirium inevitably set in. By Texarkana, the wife dozing blissfully on the sofa-like back seat, the radio became unbearable until a public station began playing a Rhino Records R&B compilation encompassing everything from Robert Johnson to Ike & Tina Turner. It was a rare transcendent moment, akin to a sirloin steak dropping into a starving man's lap.
With any luck, that kind of experience will become common again in the near future. Cable radio already offers 50 channels for housebound listeners, while satellite radio is poised to launch early next year with a full 100 channels available via subscription. Internet radio has been around for several years and keeps growing, but once broadband wireless becomes workable (broadcasting the Internet over the airwaves), the playing field on which radio currently finds itself promises not just to expand, but to explode.
Take, for example, Broadcast.com, which is to Net radio what Amazon.com is to e-commerce with its estimated 660,000 people logging on daily. SonicNet, meanwhile, MTV Interactive's online station, enables listeners to assemble personalized playlists from their selection. Seattle's Antenna Radio offers channels like "Gift Wrapped Crap" (classic punk, New Wave and power pop), "Sonic Attack" (eclectic and psychedelic), "Le Vide" (experimental and avant-garde), among many others. There are Christian Net-only stations, Ireland's Shamrock Radio, RadioValve blasting techno and industrial from its server, and B92 supplying breaking news and music from Yugoslavia.
Not that Net radio doesn't have a few hitches. Plenty of technological Luddites out there have PCs from days of yore (1995 or so) and Bronze Age dial-up connections; Internet audio is next to useless for most of them. Even so-called high-speed connections have their molasses moments. Servers go down, buffering makes the signal staccato to the point of unlistenability, and speakers of many home computers still leave quite a bit to be desired. Also, at the risk of stating the obvious, it's a bit difficult to pack up your Dell and tote it to the beach so you and your pals can do a frenetic frug to Spinners tuneage. Though it may be fine for the cubicle denizen toiling away at work or the Net surfer glued to his monitor at home, Web radio still is not quite a viable medium.
That is, at least until the problems inherent in broadband wireless technology are worked out. Currently, it depends on an unobstructed path between transmitters, with the distance between towers as low as 7é10 of a mile in some cases. Meteorological disturbances can disrupt transmissions; tall buildings in urban areas can get in the way as well. In other words, it's a few years down the road until broadband wireless will be available in places like West Texas, Maine, or South Dakota.
Considering the course followed by other breaking technologies in the past decade or so, these problems will get solved and the technology will become cheaper, smaller, and more available. When that day comes, all bets will be off; videophones, webcast movies, and all sorts of previously sci-fi features might finally come to pass. At that point, Web-only radio stations will probably become wireless, but no one seems to want to speculate as to when. And when anyone with Internet audio can throw their programming out into the ether, it'll be tantamount to a freeway full of motorists without license, registration, or insurance.
If it becomes a reality, however, it will take up where television and radio left off, shrinking the world down to about the size of a bowling ball. Given the pace of technology's snowballing, wireless broadband could make today's cell phone "wireless Internet" functions look like Alexander Graham Bell's original "Watson, I need you" message.
Cable TV changed all that in the early Seventies. Stiff resistance came at first from those who resented the idea of paying for what could be snagged from the ozone for free, but the writing was already on the wall. Twenty years later, 100 or more channels are routinely piped into living rooms across the country, and while some argue that the panoply of choices has done little but expand the "vast wasteland" that FCC chairman Newt Minow once mentioned in a prescient early Sixties speech, it's all a matter of choice, and choice is one of the most treasured of American values.
What happened with the spectrum of TV choices after the advent of cable is analogous to the current cable-radio scenario. Subscribers to Time Warner's digital service here in Austin find a whole range of music channels specializing in jazz, blues, country, Hot Country, country hits, alternative country, classic country, Tejano, salsa, big band, singers and standards, showtunes, metal, classic rock, oldies, and so forth. Each channel features music not often heard on commercial broadcast radio; the alt.country channel, for instance, features the Derailers, North Mississippi All-Stars, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris in any given hour. It's a welcome feature tailored to individual, eclectic tastes.
Time Warner subscribes to Music Choice of Horsham, Penn., as do PrimeStar and DirecTV. Music Choice offers performances by a diverse cross section of artists like Steve Earle, Collective Soul, Carly Simon, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and even arena mastodons REO Speedwagon and Styx only available through their service. The network even recently unearthed a cache of previously unreleased demo, home, and live recordings from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, airing all month on the Showcase 1 channel.
The service is a confluence of several major players in the telecom, cable, and music industries: Motorola, Sony Music, and others. Since the online service uses Windows' proprietary audio software, a cozy relationship has also blossomed with Microsoft. The software behemoth has even thrown its weight behind a program that gives previously unsigned country, rock, jazz, and blues artists an outlet and an audience. Music Choice's site also gives fans a chance to discuss their favorite genres in chat rooms, as well as the choice of downloading music or buying CDs through the company's retail partner, CDNow.
Though the service has the obvious limitation of being cable-only, it's nonetheless a delight to putter around the house with the stereo playing your favorite genre in digital-quality sound and the TV scrolling the artist, label, song, and CD title. It's almost guaranteed to introduce you to unfamiliar songs and artists, all without commercials or DJs. Each channel has programmers who keep weekly updated charts that help serve as guides for music consumers. Already on 469 cable systems in 13 million households, Music Choice isn't exactly small potatoes. Better yet, the service eliminates arguments about what to play during parties.
Radios equipped to receive satellite transmission will have an antenna no larger than a half-dollar, with artists and song titles displayed on the LCD faceplate (future units may even display concert dates and information, as well as stock quotes and airline info). Like contemporary cable boxes, the units will also feature parental control features allowing stations to be locked out.
Ford announced that the technology will be available on all its models (Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Aston-Martin, Volvo, Jaguar) beginning with the 2001 models, and has already debuted a 2001 Expedition equipped with a satellite receiver at car shows. The auto maker has even thrown its technical support behind CD Radio, working with the company to develop programming and special features that will be geared strictly toward Ford customers -- even to the point of having bandwidth dedicated to Ford-only channels.
XM Radio, on the other hand, enjoys the support of heavy hitters such as General Motors, Clear Channel Communications, DirecTV, and a consortium of several private investors. GM's financial stake in the company means its car radios will, of course, pick up XM's satellite signal, and the company is currently working with Sharp and Sony on designs for portable and home satellite radios. By year's end, in fact, most stereos, jamboxes, and portable radios will have satellite capability. Strategies are already in place for retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City to offer name-brand aftermarket car radios starting in early 2001, as well as deals with companies like Delco, Blaupunkt, and Fujitsu-Ten for factory-installed radios.
XM's news, talk, and information programming will offer such choices as Bloomberg News Radio, C-SPAN Radio, BET, Radio One (with six channels of African-American programming), CNN, BBC World Service, Asia One, Salem Broadcasting (the nation's No. 1 Christian broadcaster), and the Hispanic Broadcast Corporation, among others. With 82 different studios in its Washington, D.C. headquarters, XM has recruited top-flight broadcasting talent to assist with this programming. Longtime radio icon Lee Abrams, who helped pioneer the AOR format in the Seventies and the Z-Rock metal format in the Eighties, has climbed aboard as XM's vice-president of programming and content.
"We think there's a huge need out there," says XM spokesperson Vicki Stearn. "Industry statistics demonstrate to us that there are 43-50 million people who are interested in this right now. We're selecting people [for programming] who are willing to push the envelope, who feel a little stifled where they are and are wanting to try something new and break out into a new mode of radio.
"There are all the people who really can't get the kind of programming they want, and those are the people we'll appeal to. We're trying to create a place where the listener will feel at home. For instance, for fans of classic country music ô la Hank Williams, we'll have a channel called 'Hank's Place.' Not only will the music be of a certain era to target that audience, but the conversation and other elements that you think of as creating a 'format' will give you the sense of being in a smoke-filled honky-tonk from the era. When you have so much going on in music but stations are playing such a small percentage of it, when 23% of CD sales never see any radio play at all, there are a lot of niches that need to be filled."
Stearn notes that a great deal of flexibility is built into their programming, with the potential to add, subtract, or build new formats. XM also promises to have interactive programming, giving subscribers a voice in what's played on the channels through online voting. The philosophy behind the music channels is geared more toward those listeners that have a passion about the music they like, with an eye toward creating an atmosphere and mood somewhat less cold than Music Choice's cable-radio channels. Cable radio's selection is all well and good, but the whole idea of cable and satellite TV is for the subscriber to actually watch television and see commercials, not listen to music.
XM's main competitor, Sirius/CD Radio, is also slated to launch in the first quarter of 2001. Sirius has inked a deal with Chrysler for satellite service in future DaimlerChrysler vehicles, and the corporation has backed Sirius to the tune of $100 million. Interestingly, XM and Sirius have agreed on standards for satellite technology that will enable subscribers to pick up broadcasts from both services on the same radios. The two companies' plans sound remarkably alike with one glaring exception: CD Radio promises to be completely commercial-free, revenues coming from subscriptions, while XM will have a limited amount of advertising.
As for satellite radio's effects on music programming, Jeff Carrol, operations manager for LBJ-S Broadcasting, parent company of KLBJ, KGSR, and KROX, has some clear-eyed observations.
"My personal opinion is that it will be a unique feature, kind of an upscale thing that aficionados will pick up on, but as far as the general public, I don't see it happening that much. It'll be another form of competition for radio, but not the threat that satellite companies are saying it will be, because what will always win for local radio is the localization of it.
"People that live in town want to know what's going on in that town, and satellite radio will never be able to deliver that," he continues. "It'll be able to deliver finely niched formats with CD-quality sound, and even that's somewhat questionable. There are certain areas that will have problems receiving the satellite downlink because of clouds or tall buildings. We all have satellite dishes on our TVs, and most of the time they have excellent reception, but not all the time, based on what weather is taking place on the uplink side or the downlink side.
"Multiply that with a moving dish receiver, and you'll increase the chances of digital breakup ô la our cell phones."
Carrol also raises the other questions about the strengths of the technology itself.
"If it's available on portable radios and such, the question arises, will you have to have four separate subscriptions if you have three cars and a jambox?" he says. "How portable will that be for the workplace? I think that there are some flaws in the satellite model, and I wonder if it's going to take off the way everyone thinks it will. I'm totally amazed, though, at the amount of money that's being poured into it, with car companies and stereo manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon."
There is, however, little equivocation on what Carrol sees for the future of broadcast radio.
"[Satellite radio] is going to make us all take a look at what we're doing, there's no doubt about that," he agrees. "But did individualized cable programming change network programming, and change CBS affiliates? Not drastically.
"It did force them to take a look at what cable offers vs. what they could offer. Radio's already pretty well-niched and pretty well homogenized, and that owes to researching things that work and to consolidation, which makes things a whole lot easier in the business.
"Will the pendulum swing? Of course. When someone can come at us with a new format that's fresh and market-specific and can go against the homogenized stations and be successful, then yeah, it will be time to re-evaluate. Radio's still a matter of finding the stuff that the biggest number of people can agree on, though."
KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt offers a somewhat different perspective from outside the realm of commercial radio.
"Unlike other technologies, radio has few consumer barriers to limit its use," he explains. "You can listen for free, it's reliable, and radios are cheap and easy to use. Savvy radio broadcasters have to be asking themselves, 'Are we radio broadcasters, or are we audio content developers aggregating content around audience interests and delivering it in the mode they choose?'
"More and more, we must become the latter. Satellite and broadband competitors could help make radio better. Satellite providers will deliver hundreds of high-quality music channels directly to your car. With these new choices, what becomes of the radio station that serves its community by simply being a local distributor of programming produced elsewhere? It could become irrelevant.
"I think radio, satellite, and broadband use will find appropriate niches in people's lives. There's still something special about the communal yet very personal experience of listening to the radio and hearing the DJ as your friend playing your song. I envision KUT providing several parallel services -- over the air, online, and even via satellite through production partnerships. We produce and deliver content; we must be prepared to deliver in a way that is appropriate for the content and how people use it."
It's still anyone's guess how this is all going to shake out. It's too early in the game for anyone to call, be they optimistic satellite radio PR flacks or broadcast-industry naysayers. Wireless broadband may well force satellite radio to join 8-tracks, the quadraphonic stereo, and Betamax VCRs on the compost heap of obsolete technology, but then it may also prove to be a nightmare of diversity run amok. Broadcast technology is still perfecting digital radio that will make AM sound like FM, and FM sound like CDs.
One thing that's a given, though, is the way technology has grown exponentially since WWII. Since the Seventies, it's gone from broadcast TV to hundreds of channels available on satellite or cable. Tomorrow it'll be plasma TVs that hang on the wall like Pollock prints. Think back to $300 VCRs, $500 CD players, and four-function calculators the size of Stephen King novels. It's always worked the same way: As companies recover their research and development costs, manufacturing costs drop and products become better, cheaper, smaller, and more reliable.
"Things are happening faster today than yesterday and tomorrow faster than today," says KUT's Vanderwilt. "Beyond that, those who 'know' don't even know what will happen next and when."
Meanwhile, we hurtle closer to the day when cable, telephone, television, and computers all become one. Here's hoping that as part of the bargain, we get to revisit the simple satisfaction of barreling down a deserted stretch of interstate at 4am, moon shining like a floodlight, cruise control set at 80, listening to a radio station we can actually sing along to and enjoy.
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