In my column last week, I mentioned the local radio station Q-104. When I was a teenager, before it moved to Birmingham, that station was the most popular one around here. Feeling a bit nostalgic for radio, I tuned in to a local station this week for the first time in years. That little bit of listening provided the best proof that I am old — I recognized only about one-third of the songs they played. I didn’t even recognize most of the artists’ names they announced.
There is a memorable poem from 1961 by Amiri Baraka titled “In Memory of Radio.” Baraka mentions several radio personalities from the 1940s and 1950s, like Kate Smith and Bishop Fulton Sheen, but the poem revolves around Lamont Cranston, better known as the alter-ego of “The Shadow” in the popular radio serial of the day. Baraka talks about “The Shadow” with nostalgia, as if he knew that something had changed on radio since his childhood. He repeats the catchphrase of “The Shadow”: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” I’ve heard older people mention that signature tagline, repeated every episode, and I’m sure it kindles many memories.
I’m not old enough to remember the days of radio serials, but I did think of the title of that poem as I listened to the radio yesterday. Like Baraka in 1961, radio as I knew it as a young man is a memory. I don’t think today’s teenagers have nearly the same place in their experience for radio that my generation did. They have too many choices.
Back in my teenage days, there were only so many radio stations around here. Before the internet made it possible to listen to radio stations in other cities, that limited our listening choices. It may seem counterintuitive, but I remember hearing a wider range of music genres with fewer stations. Although there were large categories — country stations, Top 40 stations, etc. — there seemed to be a larger variety of choice inside those categories. Most of them had programs that showcased particular genres of music, but by and large, there still was a more eclectic listening experience.
One program I never missed when it was on was “Electric Lunch,” which I think ran on Q-104. Every weekday for an hour at noon, they played only music from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which considerably expanded my appreciation for that music. They played a wide selection of songs — from popular ones such as Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” to deeper tracks such as “Reach Out of the Darkness” by Friend & Lover. I heard both songs for the first time on that show.
I went off to college just as “college radio” started to become a thing. Most local stations played a wide variety of music in their genre to appeal to a larger commercial audience, but college radio stations had no such concern. They played what college students were listening to, a genre that later became known as “alternative” music. A college radio station was the first place I heard R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs, for example. By the time I graduated in the early 1990s, there were commercial alternative stations within range, so I graduated from Top Forty stations to those stations.
My move from Top 40 radio to a niche genre reflects what now seems to have been the trend. As the radio audience’s taste specialized, the radio stations’ formats did as well. Country stations today aren’t the same as they were when I tuned in back in the ‘80s, for example. The type of country music I enjoy is now referred to as “classic country,” and I don’t recognize the recording artists coming out of Nashville any more than I do the Top 40 artists. There are even a few “alt-country” stations around.
Of course, the greatest fracturing of the radio audience happened when internet radio and satellite radio stations came into being. It’s now possible to “specialize” listening choices to a degree that would have been commercially impossible before internet and satellite. I noticed a suggestion for a “Bob Dylan” station for me on my streaming station last week, and I’m not really all that big of a Dylan fan. The fact that there is a “radio station” that plays only Bob Dylan and artists that sound like Bob Dylan means that people can listen to only what they know they like rather than branching out and listening to other types of music that the old-time local stations cultivated.
If I ever become a man wealthy enough that I don’t care about making money anymore, I’m going to buy a radio station and call it WRFA — Radio Free Alabama. We’ll play EVERYTHING from jazz to blues to rock to country to rockabilly to R&B to Top Forty. I can’t guarantee y’all will like ALL of our playlist, but we’ll play it ALL.
David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions reflected are his own.