Tuesday, July 24, 2007

NYC Radio: Jack Hits the Road

Hot on the heels of the two mouths who spewed an endless stream of dull, adolescent conversation and puerile sex humor, recently departed from WXRK, the unloved and in fact nonexistent "Jack" has hightailed it out of town, apparently back to Canada from which "he" was imported, duty-free. For those of you who are not NYC listeners (in all probability a highly favored status right now), "Jack" was the pre-recorded personality with the puerile, adolescent attitude (anyone notice a pattern here?) who would periodically interrupt WCBS's jukebox format with some snide remark, often about alleged skeptics regarding about CBS's format, and then, with equally annoying attitude, intone, "Jack-FM - playing what we want". Figure Napolean Dynamite after DJ lessons; that's about how this came across. Raise your hand if you thought it would last.

Going back a few decades, CBS-FM was once one of NYC's premier prog-pop radio stations, playing everything from the Moody Blues and Jethro Tull to Carol King and Elton John, but bringing consistent taste as well as quality to NY radio. There were more experimental formats - WXLR, if I recall, was one - but this was a station no reasonable music lover could complain about. At some point, CBS switched to an Oldies format, about which all that can be said is that "Oldies" never means a really creative sampling of older songs, but rather an attempt to mine nostalgia for well-known hits. This is necessarily an uneven format, since hits are of uneven quality. At some point around the turn of the millenium the format deteriorated further, and the selection of hits was reduced to early Motown with a few Beatles songs or other superhits thrown in. This format is what Jack replaced.

It is hardly surprising that Jack did not catch on, and in fact reduced CBS's listenership (and advertising revenue) significantly. But it is interesting to consider why. I suspect it was a nearly total disconnect between the music selection and
the impersonal, mechanized, phony-DJ-with-attitude idea (which according to the Times was supposed to make someone think of an iPod Shuffle - as if that is really a rationale for a radio format). But the music selection, though far from exemplary, was much better than the parade of Motown hits, and indeed much better than the wider Oldies format of yesteryear. "Jack" actually pulled from a much wider playlist than any other oldies or classics format, and had a predilection for some groups that I feel are grossly underplayed in such formats compared to their quality, such as Steely Dan or The Fixx. "Jack" did not limit the selection to major hits, though most of the tunes were at least vaguely familiar. "He" had a disposition towards crisp, catchy tunes with hooks, but that left him very wide latitude to pick and choose. Not that there wasn't repetition; and indeed one could still detect a bit too much of "Hotel California" and the like, as if we did not hear enough of that incredibly tired stuff from the "classic rock" (or is it "Clearchannel rock"?) guys at 104.3. There was also a perhaps commercially wise but musically dubious effort to stick to early-80's disco on the weekend.

All that said, there was something extremely refreshing about the "playing what we want" idea. Playlists are exactly what is wrong with rock radio, be it contemporary pop (100.3), classic rock, country or just about any other format. Jack was a great experiment in widening the playlist so much that it almost disappeared. K-Rock, even with their all-chatter format on weekdays, actually experimented on the weekends with a very interesting contemporary mix.
That has now been quieted, along with the talking emptyheads, and the station has gone to an extremely careful and repetitious selection of new stuff that is even more conservative than their earlier hard rock format.
And for CBS-FM, it is now Back to the Playlist: Oldies, slightly updated but still tired. And so ends a brief and occasionally interesting era of sort-of free form rock radio in NYC.

A few NY-area college stations still dare to spin "what they want" at certain hours; but
with their limited reach, they provide few opportunities for quality or exploratory programming. WFUV, which at some point had potential as a folk/acoustic station, long ago went commercial, limiting its exposure of new artists and focusing on already successful, and largely electric, acts to the point of becoming nearly indistinguishable from various "light rock" stations. WKCR gives us mainly jazz and some bluegrass and world music. I believe the nearest experimental rock station is Seton Hall's WSOU in Orange, NJ, though I can't get reception in Brooklyn; Fairleigh Dickinson's WFDU also provides some interest at the low end of the dial if you can get it. Other than that, it is pretty much a complete Radio Wasteland.

Almost. Strangely enough, it is 104.3 at night, with it's "Out of the Box" and "Underground Garage" shows, that still holds a few cutting edge cards now, as unbearable and stultifying as its daytime format is. That is something, but it ain't enough. What we need here is three things that we're not very likely to get, at least in a 24-hour station. One is a no-holds-barred experimental rock station that will give us everything from the latest progressive rock, in its various guises (see my previous post on the Book of Knots concert), to the more worthy alt-country happenings, to various interesting indie releases. Call this one WIND. And no, I don't mean Indiana. The second is a station that mines rock history for its 10,000's of extremely high quality but vastly underplayed cuts, be it from well known bands like Pink Floyd (when was the last time you heard "Atom Heart Mother" or "Astronomy Domine" on the radio?) to barely remembered groups like Family (their album Fearless is one of my favorite pieces of vinyl), from 60's garage bands (heard Bubble Puppy's "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" recently?) to some of the ingenious but rarely played cuts from contemporary groups like the Meat Puppets, Lemonheads, or Spoon. I could spin brilliant but virtually unplayed cuts by 10CC, Nektar and The Fixx for a couple of days without repeating anything. Spread that over half a century of rock history and you've got an almost endless supply of brilliant music, none of which has been overplayed by the 104.3 DJ's. Call this station WFRE. That's free, and without the attitude, Jack.

The third is a station that actually has some deep relationship to this country's musical traditions (other than jazz, which thankfully is actually represented in a couple of reasonable formats). I mean a station for which "country" means Hank WIlliams and Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and Johnny Cash and people who are their direct musical descendants. A station for which "folk" means Woody and Huddie and Pete and Bill (Staines - too bad I have to add that, he's fully their equal), and which plays some of the hundreds of high quality CD's released every year by acoustic musicians who look to them for inspiration. And which isn't afraid to play a scratchy old Big Bill Broonzy or Blind Willie McTell recording, or one by the host of worthy blues pickers who keep the tradition alive. Call this one WACU. Acoustic in spirit at least, because electronically amplified instruments are a kind of power center whose imperialistic tendencies we must resist, even if we love it as one form of expression.

For these stations to exist, I think the only hope is for some billionaire who actually cares about American music to buy out some media monopoly and play the stuff at a loss. Because one thing is clear: be it rock, country, or blues, what sells is obviously an extremely narrow spectrum of music that is constantly hammered into the heads of radio audiences through top-20 playlists and video channels. And that is a poor comment on us and our cultural bearings. A little paternalism can be a good thing, sometimes. Just give us some decent radio stations. The attitude needed to hit the road, but not the free format.

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