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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Remembering Radio (and Me), Part 4: 1993

And so, 1993: twenty years ago, the year I turned 25, graduated from BYU, started graduate school, and married Melissa. And also, to a great extent, stopped being interested in radio, at least to the degree I had before. What happened? And if not the radio, what was I listening to then?

After my mission to South Korea, I return to BYU and Provo, UT, and for a while I could pick up where I'd left off two years before. But there were changes afoot; through a variety of back-room deals and bankruptcies, KJQ changed ownership, most of its staff were either fired or quit, some of whom then organized a takeover of KZOL 96.1 FM, which was promptly re-branded KXRK or "X96," with eventually most of the old modern rock/college/alternative music DJs from KJQ showing up under X96's banner. Dom Casual, Kerry Jackson, Bill Allred: it was "Radio from Hell" back again, only under a new call sign. The transitions didn't change much about the music they played, but it may have signaled a change in attitude towards it--or maybe it was just that grunge was increasingly dominant, and so "New Wave" rather abruptly became something about which snide jokes could be made. Didn't matter to me; I still listened. I may have missed things when grunge first broke, but it was nice to be listening as it as it reached an apotheosis of sorts (see, for example, Nirvana's "All Apologies"). And besides, the grunge sensibility lent itself to more acoustic and less refined, more worldly and unconventional pop music; hence, Björk's album Debut...

...the same trends which made her possible also influencing former mainstays of alternative radio in Utah to respond in different ways. U2's Zooropa was an embrace of electronic dance rhythms, for example...

...while Depeche Mode, on their 1993 album Songs of Faith and Devotion, we actually heard the band members playing guitars...

...but for all that, to an ever-increasing extent, my attention was being drawn elsewhere.

Was it the widespread arrival of the internet (or the "World Wide Web," as we tended to call it back then), the rise of file-sharing, the emerging realization that MTV wasn't going to play music videos any more? Some of that, I suppose. Maybe it was just the general sense that radio, the mainstay of my youth, was being forced to treat its primary good--pop music--as increasingly disposable and dispensable. It would be just as easy to see in this a triumph, with a once-predictable media platform being forced to diversify in line with changing technology and segmentation: so this was the era when shock jocks and talk radio went huge, becoming a national commercial (and political) force, crowding out pop stations or forcing them to adapt and/or narrow-cast their programming along the way. I suppose it's silly to see the rapid conquest of so much of the radio dial by the forces of ideological and aesthetic Balkinization as a loss for our common pop culture; I can look at my previous entries in this series, and imagine someone who was of my age and cohort growing up Spokane, WA--only perhaps a Spanish-speaker, or an African-American, or an evangelical Christian--who might look at my list of tunes and conclude that I'd left them out of pop culture entirely. And they'd have a point: maybe radio as the dispenser of a common pop music foundation was always a fiction, and it only took me until I was in my early to mid-twenties to realize it.

Except: no, I don't really believe that, not entirely anyway, if only because I lived through the emergence of the structural forces that propelled all these changes, and at some point I could turn around and notice the difference. With radio increasingly no longer serving as a common reference to what's popular, musicians turned to other media--like advertising. The dinosaurs of the 60s and 70s led the way--but many others followed:

Oh, and about those "dinosaurs"--thanks to my years in Korea, I was finally listening to them. Deep in my memory, no doubt due to KJRB, a lot of classic rock was already there, but as a missionary I interacted with others who got me curious about, thinking about, and ultimately really listening to the true canon of post-WWII pop and rock music in a way I never had before. It started with James Taylor, and a revival of my memories of Al Stewart's and Gerry Rafferty's 70s folk-rock, which led me in turn back to the Grateful Dead, The Byrds, and eventually Bob Dylan. And the Beatles, of course: I bought their "Red" and "Blue" collections in Korea, and when I came back home I started building my collection of their albums and their many, many descendents properly. It didn't hurt that MTV Unplugged was going through its hey-day at this moment (Eric Clapton's monster Unplugged came out a year earlier, in 1992), and that The Rolling Stones released Voodoo Lounge and the Eagles released Hell Freezes Over just a year later, in 1994. Artists that I, in my 25th year, thought were ridiculously old (in their 40s and 50s!) were selling out huge concert halls...but not, perhaps unsurprisingly, filling up the airwaves that used to track what was popular. Casey Kasem and "American Top 40," I suddenly realized one day, were irrelevant, at least to the music industry that I saw around me. No wonder classic rock, by the late 1990s, occupied a larger portion of the total radio market share than any other format.

Well, all these concerns didn't stop me from paying attention to current pop; I just wasn't paying attention in the same way. As time went by, I was reaching out into folk and the blues and jazz, and benefiting from it all the while. Still, my pop heart kept on beating. My favorite album of the year was Sting's Ten Summoner's Tales, and for the life of me, I couldn't tell you how I first heard about it--but it wasn't from the radio, that's sure. Still, Melissa and I played our tape cassette of it to death. ("St. Augustine in Hell" was Melissa's favorite track, because she really like the line about music critics.)

Billy Joel's River of Dreams was huge too--and yet,while I'm pretty certain I heard one or two songs from it on pop radio, Joel was obviously banking on a different approach to the media to move his CDs. It worked; like half the people I knew, I watched David Letterman's new program on CBS too, and Joel managed to land right in front of our eyebrows and earlobes. (Sting managed this on Saturday Night Live too.)

Getting pop culture from not just radio, but from the internet, from television, from advertisements, and of course from movie soundtracks (like the awesome What's Love Got to Do With It?) that ended up on the radio only after finding their way to the popular consciousness through award shows and word of mouth--that was radio looked (sounded) like to me in 1993. Not that music was different, but the framing of it, the estimation of it, the--let me get really pretentious here--social position of it was different. Not lesser, perhaps, but different.

And today? Well, while I've continued, over the last 20 years, to turn on the radio whenever I'm making short trips in the car (particularly our local BOB FM station), I almost never listen to it for music anymore; at home, the radio is for NPR, and that's about it. At work, it's scads of old tape cassettes I have--Robert Johnson recordings! Midnight Oil's Earth and Sun and Moon (also from 1993, by the way)! The Beatles at the BBC!--plus CDs, plus, of course, Pandora. I suppose on some level I'm kind of sad about that; after all, would I have written this series of posts if I wasn't? But see here--I'm fully aware that maybe all I've done with this walk down memory lane is talk about the sort of transitions and technological relationships that every person who grows up goes through. I mean, radio is still around, and while my oldest daughter has never seen any need for it, Caitlyn, our second daughter (right now 13 and half years old, so coming up on where I was in 1983), listens to Wichita's 105.3 FM "The Buzz" religiously. So maybe, in the end, pop radio is just a platform for young people. When you stop being young, you go on to over things. Thank goodness the music is still there, if you know how to look for it, and even if it doesn't quite mean the same thing.

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