It is after six o-clock pm, and the aisles of Shaw’s are bustling with last-minute dinner shoppers. Dodging throngs of gym-clothed soccer moms, I make for the produce section, unsure whether I’ll find “fresh ginger root” in a supermarket stocked with bulk cases of Lays’ chips and soda. I have been here for over an hour now, and the grocery cart in front of me is becoming more and more unwieldy with every new addition. As I attempt to cut a sharp corner, toppling a tower of canned tomatoes, I remind myself that I was supposed to be out of the station half an hour ago. Silently, I curse the Dirty Heads.
When I accepted an internship at a radio station, I was unsure what to expect. As a college student interested in music, I wanted to meet DJs, see concerts, and work with people who had dedicated their lives to promoting an art I was passionate about. Lugging a week’s worth of groceries down supermarket aisles and scouring the shelves for foods I didn’t know existed (kombucha?) wasn’t in my itinerary.
To be fair, there was a part of me—the alt-rock fangirl who still thrilled at the prospect of working backstage—that couldn’t help but be excited about shopping for a band I’d listened to since the seventh grade. There is something oddly intimate about reading someone’s grocery list: who, after all, would expect a self-described ska-punk rap group to drink Starbucks refreshers (6, assorted flavors), or açai smoothies? As I made my way past heads of lettuce and swollen-looking potatoes, I felt an odd combination of unimportance and unique responsibility.
When recounting stories about the station to friends and family, I received a wide range of reactions. While many of my younger peers expressed envy at the concerts and club events I was working, more often, I would get a hesitant, “why?” After all, radio—at least radio as we know it—is a dying industry. Over the past few years, countless reports have warned us that FM broadcasting is fizzling out as quickly as print media, with more expansive Satellite stations and hipper, listener-friendly internet radio apps taking its place. In June 2013, Variety magazine announced that terrestrial radio was “digging its own grave” by striving to compete with internet streaming services, such as Pandora and Spotify, which allow users to tailor playlists to their individual tastes. The magazine also asserted that the satellite service Sirius XM posed an even more serious threat, offering a sweeping array of stations and superior content to terrestrial radio. A more recent article in Forbes predicted that Pandora’s plans to provide internet radio in cars would deal yet another blow to the success of traditional radio stations. In an age of increasingly interactive, ultra-personalized media, old-school radio’s comparatively narrow, repetitive format would appear to be all but doomed.
There were many points this summer where these warnings felt all too real. As noted by Variety, one of the chief reasons that terrestrial stations have been losing profit to their internet and Satellite competitors has to do with the quality of their content. The interactive nature of Pandora and Spotify allows these apps to provide users with personalized playlists, suited to the listener’s individual preferences. Likewise, the seemingly infinite stations on Sirius XM sweep a wide array of genres from Americana to opera, each of which offers a much richer variety of music than most stations on the FM dial.
Yet despite this growing threat from competitors, FM stations continue to select their music in an extremely formulaic, profit-oriented manner that results in monotonous and often repetitive playlists aimed at pleasing the general public, rather than providing the sort of varied and fresh content that would attract avid music fans. As the station’s program director explained to me one afternoon, much of the information that the station uses to determine what music to play is drawn from “listening sessions,” in which a sample of listeners are invited to the station to preview, rate, and provide other feedback about new releases. He continued on to share this system was problematic in that participants heard the songs only once, which had always seemed, to him, insufficient to determine the quality of a piece of music. Ultimately, it was a system of rating that favored catchiness over artistry.
One of the most common arguments in defense of traditional radio is the fact that, unlike Spotify and Pandora, the music on FM radio is selected and ordered by a human being rather than a computer. This is the main reason I’ve always been drawn to the format, despite its at times mediocre content. Yet, increasingly, the idea that there is a flesh-and-blood DJ handpicking records to play on air is becoming an illusion. I was shocked when, my second day at the station, the station’s primary on-air-personality shared that the commentary he provided in between songs was entirely pre-recorded. I asked him just how much of today’s radio was actually live. “I’d say almost none of it,” he told me. “Just about everything you hear on air has already been recorded and edited for quality.” Having grown up listening to the radio, I felt slightly disillusioned by this—the witty commentary and casual banter I’d always taken to be improvised on the spot had already been recorded and reviewed before making it to the air, as carefully calculated for effect as the station’s previewed-and-rated playlists.
With its content suffering, and live DJs largely a myth, is the radio really, as many reporters would have us believe, doomed? The answer, at least according to many of those I worked with, is no. When I asked one of my supervisors, John—a former DJ and director of the station’s promotions department—his opinion on radio’s future, he asserted that terrestrial radio was not dying, simply changing. Yes, internet radio services like Spotify could provide listeners with a degree of choice and personalized content that FM broadcasting could never achieve. But local, FM stations could also provide something that the digital algorithms of Pandora, or the extra-terrestrial beast of Satellite, never could: live music. “Ever since Pandora came out, people are always saying that radio’s dying,” he told me. And I always say, “When’s the last time that you’ve seen Pandora at a show?”
As listeners increasingly turn to other programs to discover new artists, or provide a soundtrack to their morning commutes, terrestrial radio stations are becoming more and more invested in promoting live music and real-time events with artists, like backstage meet-and-greets. In an era in which music is so easily accessible, I believe that this emphasis on live acts—on the value of music as an experience, rather than a commodity—not only has the potential to redeem radio’s future, but is also heartening from a music-lover’s perspective. For most artists, I think, live performances carry a rawness and vitality that cannot be captured in an audio recording. Additionally, there is a sense of community in being part of a concert audience that to me feels so opposite to the solitude of a pair of headphones.
Of course, even live performances are not pure spontaneity. From the band’s set list to their equipment to their on-stage stunts, concerts involve a tremendous amount of advance planning. Additionally, as music itself becomes more digitized, many musicians are becoming increasingly reliant on pre-recorded background tracks. Yet even so, a live performer opens him or herself up to both vulnerabilities and liberties that pre-recording eliminates. Unlike CDs, live bands mess up. Equipment malfunctions; the vocalist sings out of key; the bassist and the drummer slip out of sync. Yet it is precisely the potential for mistakes that gives live performances their intimacy. Accepting that things might go wrong, a live performer trusts that his or her audience will be respectful. Likewise, the audience trusts that, even with the potential for errors, the performer will meet their expectations. This exchange of trust creates a connection between entertainer and audience that polished recordings cannot achieve. Playing live also gives bands a measure of liberty: performers are free to react to the audience’s energy, to respond to fan requests and whims as no mp3 track can. Recordings may be superior in terms of sheer sound quality, but live performances are unique.
The same, I think, can be said for radio. Like live bands, live DJs put themselves in a position of vulnerability, risking the humiliation of messing up on air, or simply not delivering high quality content. Yet the sense of intimacy brought about by this vulnerability allows for a sense of trust and connectedness between a DJ and listeners that is lost in a recording. Though truly live DJs are disappearing from the airwaves, the very process of selecting a playlist by hand has, in itself, an element of “liveness.” Unlike Pandora, FM radio playlists are not perfect. They are based on the judgments of individuals, not the calculations of a computer. And mediated as this content might be by FM radio’s obligation to crowd-please, I still believe that there is value in playlists being shaped by the unique opinions of another person rather than an algorithm.
The afternoon after my shopping venture, I was posted in front of the stage, interviewing fans for a video segment. “How did you get this job?” one girl asked me, after gushing about the band’s lead singer. She looked to be about eighteen, with the cropped neon hair and gauged ears of an avid music festival attendee. I laughed, taken aback by her interest in what was hardly a glamorous position, and encouraged her to contact the station. As we spoke, the venue filled with a diverse spread of concertgoers: men in cargo pants, women in business clothes, longhaired teens in tie-dye and sandals. Watching the enthusiasm now surging through the hall, I saw for the first time what John had meant: that the value of radio is not solely in what is transmitted on-air, but in the simple, real-time experiences that only a locally-based organization devoted to bringing music not to a single listener, but to a group, can deliver.