Monday, March 26, 2007

Inter-Station Static

One of the changes I underwent during my early teen years was developing the habit of staying up late- reading, watching midnight movies or West Coast baseball on the TV, or scanning the airwaves; listening to distant AM radio stations- windows to a larger world. WLS in Chicago was a strong, clear-channel station that could be heard as soon as the sun went down. Art Roberts played new releases a week or two before they got to Minneapolis. KOMA in Oklahoma City played regional music, stuff that didn't always make it up the river. There was a station out of Baton Rouge that played the latest New Orleans stuff, Lee Dorsey, Al Tousan (Toussaint) and Aaron Neville. My physical world at the time only encompassed about three square miles, so this was heady stuff indeed.

My father had given me an old tube-radio, it worked all right, but it lacked a case. I would touch the tuning condenser in varying spots to improve reception, occasionally picking up a "stinger" of about 300 volts on my bare fingers. I had run an extension antenna out the window in an effort to pick up more stations: Nashville, Philadelphia, Mexico, even French-language stations in Canada. All in search of something, anything; anything that was different, new or exotic- or just far away.

When the Beatles and the "British Invasion" hit, it changed things. The radio top-40 had been an eclectic mix of older singers (Nat Cole, Sinatra, Peggy Lee), Country stars (Patsy Cline, Johnny Horton, Johnny Cash) garage bands (Wipe Out, Louie Louie, Surfin' Bird) Jazz instrumentals (Take Five, Watermelon Man) Folk Acts (Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte) and novelty tunes (Ray Stevens, Allen Sherman.) Add to this the rapid ascent of Motown and it made for quite a mix. But at one point in 1964, The Beatles had the top FIVE songs, seven of the top ten, and suddenly a lot of musical diversity disappeared from the radio.

That wasn't a bad thing, per se, pop music had become big business, the British acts did a tremendous service in giving exposure to blues and R&B acts; things change.
But the money was so big, and the PR was so intense, that the regional influence in Radio kind of disappeared, and my searches through the late-night inter-station static came to a halt, in a few years FM Underground would emerge, burn brightly and then get devoured by the same business models. But FM, by its nature, doesn't travel as far, and, with the exception of a few independent and college stations, it is a medium of commerce, not culture.

I heard the voice of America
Callin' on my wavelength
Tellin' me to tune in on my radio
I heard the voice of America
Callin' on my wavelength
Singin' Come back, baby
Come back
Come back, baby
Come back...

-Van Morrison

By Professor Batty



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