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Radio AM to FM: January 7, 2005

Getting Sirius About Radio

I love radio. I really love radio. Or at least what radio once was.

There was a time when I would spend much of my spare time just listening to the radio. It began with a 10 transistor Realtone radio that my Aunt Ina gave me when I was young, back when I thought KGBS was KHJ because it was near where KHJ should be on the dial (OK, I was stupid).

I have a lousy memory when it comes to names, but I can remember events in radio. Format changes, personalities, jingles ... they are all part of my life. I even remember events by what station(s) I was listening to at the time: When the Sylmar earthquake hit in 1971, I remember nothing other than KHJ was knocked off the air (and that we got to stay home from school); when visiting my sister and her family in Gilroy, I remember listening to KFRC out of San Francisco playing Bryan Adams though the radio in my mom's Cavalier.

I used to write the KCBQ top-10 on a chalkboard in the garage, and take a "survey" of favorite radio stations ... skewed by the fact that I asked only my brother Victor and myself. I recall the interference that AM stations had sometime in the mid 1970s when a burst of static would sound for a split second. I never figured out why.

Heck, I remember working at the Sears Surplus Store in San Pedro, printing signs for the ads that were to run the next day, hearing the new top-40 K-WEST playing jock-logos (jingles with the DJ's name sung) for the first time. It made my day; I smiled the rest of the night.

So my emotions were somewhat mixed when I opened my Christmas gifts this year; my wife Jean bought me Sirius Satellite Radio. Yes, I have been wanting to try it out and I think I will enjoy it very much. But I can't help feeling guilty, as if I am abandoning an old friend. A friend that helped shape my life.

Of course the reality is that radio abandoned me, a long time ago. With the evolution and spread of consultants, huge corporate ownership, and programmers who are apparently too young to have ever even heard good radio, the vast majority of stations are little more than jukeboxes playing the same burnt songs over and over again. There is no personal connection, and production has gotten so cluttered that it it often difficult to listen.

Contrast that with the past when personalities would get out in the streets to meet people, stations would offer free concerts as listener thank-yous, and programmers would ensure that their station was fun.

No wonder radio listening is at an all time low, especially among young people who are the very future of radio.

Of course I am conflicting with myself here: the very elements that I miss most about radio -- the localism and listener connection -- cannot possibly be done on a nationwide basis such as with satellite radio. And in the long run, I may grow to dislike it. But at least the variety of music is a throwback. I can actually hear current music that I like again, for example, and in just a few days I have heard many songs that traditional radio forgot.

I suppose the next few months will be an experiment to see if satellite radio can fill a void that has been missing in radio for a long time. As I said, the local angle is not possible. But well-programmed formats, uncluttered production, and personalities who, though voice tracked, are allowed to show some personality will be a breath of fresh air.

Between Sirius and KZLA, I may get over my guilt.


Copyright © 2005 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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