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Once a Calling

commercial pop radio ought to be more than a porn reading service

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, August 21, 2002.

It’s hard to imagine, but radio once was unifying, concerned with - or at least pandering to - the young and the moment and the future with good music you hadn’t heard before. It wasn’t all that interested in the past or the drunken youths of old farts. It aspired to more than being, in essence, a porn reading service.

I suppose you have heard that two people were caught last week making love - or having sex anyway – in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. At best, this can be called tasteless in the extreme, but made worse because the Cathedral had many other people in it, including the elderly and children, although I can’t actually formulate why that makes it worse. Oh, also an individual with a cell phone providing commentary on the doings for live broadcast over a radio station.

The station, or at least one particular disc jockey - or personality or whatever we call them now - had been doing a bit on the riskiest places to have sex, and appropriately St. Patrick’s was one. However, the two participants and their narrator were caught and police were called and charges are pending. All to the good, and I say this as someone to whom risk of this alleged sort has exerted appeal and who is an atheist. Spontaneity has its charms and turn ons.

But it was not spontaneity, it was a radio program, and no doubt the people who did the deed did so in hope of fame and cash and we should not have our hearts further strained if forthcoming are revelations about the couple’s work in, say, the adult video market. That’s all sleazy and rather boring in its predictability, just like the contestants on so-called reality television shows are discovered to be actors, recipients of plastic surgery augmentation, felons, exhibitionists, and idiots of the first water.

What I want to whine about is that this is a sad end to one of America’s great cultural contributions of the last century: the pop music program. There was a time when being a disk jockey meant something, when you were considered, often rightfully, a bastion of cross cultural knowledge, a gateway to another world, when the work was, no hyperbole here, important. When what you played and what you said about what you played did more than merely make careers: it re-scripted the nation by refocusing the young. No more. Obviously, times have changed and you cannot return to them, but is simple attempted shock the only vision that programmers have these days? Is there no other competing view of what commercial radio can do?

Commercial radio today rings false and executes badly. It isn’t just the often god-awful music with the soul of an Intel chip drum track; it isn’t just the severely deformed personalities who have apparently mistaken themselves for artists. It isn’t just the boring and highly irritating commercials with supposedly witty dialogue.

I had a job recently where I had to listen to the radio that my partner chose, and guess what he liked? When you listen to Howard Stern these days, the most popular DJ of the last two decades, there are many things that repel and fascinate but there is such an aura of sadness about both him and the show. He is a smart guy, and at one time, along with his other qualities, he clearly loved music, but you don’t hear that anymore. He’s a self-parody, a shell, and he knows it. What used to shock only did when lain against the substance of popular music, the unifying backbone of American culture. But now shock is the backbone of American culture. It’s not the pornography that repels as much as the fact that the laughter is forced and sounds it, there is no joy; he shows little interest in his own guests, his show, himself. The most famous radio disk jockey, the highest paid, the most popular ever produces a show with all the genuine emotional enthusiasm you find in porn sites on the web. Less, actually. But the atmosphere is the same: vaguely sleazy and uncomfortable. That’s radio today.

It isn’t just the fact that all radio is owned by two or three companies who program what acts their other divisions own. It’s that rock and roll, as an ethic, has been dead since Curt Cobain, the last actually angry, talented, and popular performer and songwriter, killed himself. Rock and roll was always about sex, of course, and that was the attraction. But not real sex – that was the province of the blues – but the idealized sex of the virginal and nearly so. Where people actually had broken hearts. In all cases, there was art and skill to the depiction and presentation. There was, once, pathos and beauty to it. There was desire and imagination. There was everything you don’t get listening to a play by play of a live sexual act, the very definition of inartistic crap. Actually, there are no words........

So DJ’s invade mosques to play the national anthem like they did in Denver some years ago, or broadcast live sex from St. Patrick’s. DJ’s apparently mistook themselves for the acts, when they were not allowed to program the music any more. They’re only glorified announcers, tweaking the knobs to sound more manly or sexy, constructing childish ideas of shocking the parents of their past and putting them on the air. It’s a sad comedown for an avocation that had potential, was once important, and is now gone.