Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Radio On!

The Typing Monkey has a challenge for you. It requires a car with a working radio. If you don't have both of those things, you can stop reading and skip on to another post here, or click on one of the links in our "Monkey Love" section and enjoy some other Web-based entertainment.

Those who are prepared for it: This challenge can only be a good time. Consider it an exercise in chance, discovery and a way to return a tiny bit of wonder to the act of listening to the radio.

But first, we are required to say:
Corporate radio sucks. Media leviathans own multiple stations in single markets and continue to drain both the local personality and musical diversity from these stations in the belief that they know what listeners want to hear, niche-programming music into blank-eyed predictability.

Conversely, technology has enabled consumers to program deeply personalized playlists of music they can take wherever they want, without annoying commercial interruptions or a disc jockey who pretends that his job is a non-stop party. MP3 players and cloud-storage music services have made the act of listening to music on the radio the technological equivalent of shaving with a straight-razor sharpened on a leather strap.

Now then:
If you've read this far, we won't rehash any sad statistics regarding media consolidation and the shrinking pool of songs from which radio programming draws, because the point of all this typing is to praise radio.

That's right, we love radio and we're not afraid to admit it.

It's easy to tune in to talk or news radio and leave it on all day at work, or while doing chores around the house. Some passively listen to a single music station because it's easy to do so. There's comfort in tuning in a classic rock station while you clean the gutters, or some other unsavory but necessary labor.

But hopping from station to station -- particularly easy with a car radio -- forces the listener into activity, and consequently makes the radio experience significantly more fun. Even in the dullest radio market a few well-chosen stops on the dial can provide a reasonably good driving soundtrack.

So here's the challenge: Reprogram a few of the presets on your car radio. Sure, pick whatever stations you may voluntarily listen to, but toss in a few that trade in genres you might not think of immediately. Don't pick stations you hate, though. This is a game, not torture.

Now, the next time you have to drive for more than 20 minutes, turn on the radio and find a song you like on any of the stations. Listen to it and if you don't like the next song, change to another station on the presets until you find something agreeable.

But don't ever stay on any one station for more than three songs. You'll surprise yourself by what you settle on, and if you plug in some off-the-path stations, the whole thing can feel like listening to somebody else's iPod set to shuffle.

Just do it. Seriously, it's fun. To prove it here are some recent results from a Typing Monkey staff field trip:

Stations programmed
~ Classic rock
~ Classical music
~ An "oldies" station that spans from *Your Hit Parade material on up through unnecessary modern versions of jazz standards by the likes of Rod Stewart
~ A well-funded "indie" music station
~ "World music" station
~ Two urban contemporary/R&B/hip-hop stations
~ Jazz
~ A "JACK FM" channel
~ Pop and rock hits of the '70s and '80s

Here's what we heard, starting at 9 p.m. [Brackets] indicate the songs we skipped, or missed due to the three-song limit. An asterisk* indicates songs we heard only part of.

Jack Jones -- "Wives and Lovers"
Barbara Lewis -- "Baby I'm Yours"
Tymes -- "Wonderful! Wonderful!"

[Carley Simon - "Nobody Does It Better"]
Breakestra -- "Lowdown Stank"*
[Brother Ali -- "The Preacher"]
REM -- "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)"*
Boston -- "More Than a Feeling"
The Cure -- "Close to Me"
[The Police -- "Synchronicty II"]
Steve Miller Band -- "Jungle Love"*
Led Zeppelin -- "Celebration Day" (Zeptember!)
[Station break]
The Wailing Souls -- "Kingdom Rise & Kingdom Fall" (12" Mix)*

The next day we tried it again at 1 p.m. and netted nothing worth hearing. Really, a total wash-out. Nobody needs to hear "Gypsy" or "Magic Carpet Ride" ever again radio. We can play those songs in our heads if we feel the need.

And lately the "urban" stations seem stuck on a permanent loop of passionless, Auto-tuned "soul" jams about getting drunk and engaging in casual sex. There's better urban contemporary material out there, we've heard it.

Three days later, we took a chance on a morning drive. If you want to hear music, statistically, this has to be the worst time of the day to listen to the radio.

After minutes of fruitless searching we settled on the last dramatic bars of Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor, a decent transition into The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" then Queen's "We Will Rock You" (didn't stay for "We Are the Champions"). Switching again we landed on Charles Mingus' "Better Get Hit in Your Soul" (a revelation) and Blind Willie McTell's "Broke Down Engine Blues." That was enough to get us to our destination and now we know it's time to check out Mingus Ah Uhm.

You have the rules. Give it a try. And if you live in a barren radio wasteland, try it anyway. You never know what you might end up with after exploring the dial.

Car radio image courtesy of Antique Automobile Radio, Inc.