I have been traveling again, out to the East Coast, surfing the local dial wherever I was with the “seek” button on the rental car radio.
It’s my opinion that there’s a rather deep hole in Hell waiting for the guy who was the first to decide that his radio station should be the loudest one on the dial. The “loudness war” has changed radio and affected the way records are made. If you look at a waveform of many a top pop or country hit, you’ll see that there are no peaks and valleys, just an undifferentiated block of audio at maximum level, a phenomenon known as brickwalling. And even when the audio isn’t brickwalled by the people who make the records, radio stations are brickwalling it themselves, and not just music but commercials too. The iHeart classic-hits station in Boston and another classic-hits station I heard from somewhere in Connecticut sound really hot when you first tune them in, but after a while, the audio processing becomes oppressive. Songs have neither loud parts nor soft parts; every bit is artificially jacked up to the same level. Individual instruments audible on the original recordings either get swallowed up or weirdly emphasized; sometimes the vocals get drowned in the backing track. The net effect is to render some songs into uncanny-valley simulations of themselves: Keef’s guitar solo on “Honky Tonk Women,” which is normally sharp enough to draw blood, is buried in mush; Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” loses most of its power when its earth-moving bass shares equal sonic space with the other sounds on the record, instead of dominating them; Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” becomes little more than a high-pitched whine.
I am, as you know, a person who digs the old-school sound of AM radio and music in mono. But the Top 40 stations of yore, hot and processed as they were, didn’t do to the music anything like the kind of violence perpetrated by stations that want to sound louder than the other guys.
(Digression: the Connecticut station, which promoted itself as playing hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, at one point played the Uncle Kracker version of “Drift Away,” which features the original “Drift Away” singer Dobie Gray but was released in 2002. This is the kind of thing that can happen when you leave the intern in charge.)
I eventually fled the FM dial for AM, although the AM band in my Toyota Corolla sounded tinny and weak. (The fidelity of the FM band, apart from the brickwalling, was fine, so I suspect the AM side of the radio just wasn’t very good.) There’s not much on AM in the Boston area—mostly Jesus, Spanish, or Jesus in Spanish—although when you get closer to New York City, there’s greater variety. In Hamden, Connecticut, Quinnipiac University operates WQUN-AM. They were playing oldies while I listened, including a “Beatles break” with the original 1962 UK version of “Love Me Do” and “Dear Prudence” from the White Album. Then they stopped for a long interview segment with somebody from a local animal welfare organization about an event the group would be hosting on the weekend. (I might not have gone 20 minutes with it, but that’s just me.) WQUN’s slogan is “great music and local news,” and it’s pretty clear that they know A) precisely who’s listening and B) exactly what those listeners want.
After I lost WQUN, I picked up another oldies station from Babylon, New York. The music mix was OK, but the jock on the air was not. I suspect he’s one of those guys who’s been on the air forever but hasn’t been critiqued by anyone since the Carter Admininstration, jabbering at people in a voice that sounds like Harry Shearer playing a DJ. Most program directors will tell you that as a jock, you should limit yourself to one thought per break. This guy would do three or four—back-announce a song, mention a bit of trivia about the artist, give the time and the temperature and/or talk briefly about the weather, and then promote a contest. I bailed on him shortly after he gave the time twice in the same break. (It hadn’t changed.)
For all their flaws, the small-town and suburban stations at least have a sense of place, a feeling of being from somewhere. The major chain stations were slick and professional, but also plastic and soulless, with little local about them beyond the local addresses in commercials. They could be from anywhere . . . which is a lot like being from nowhere at all.