Thursday, August 05, 2004

The Future

XM Radio

My wife bought me a short-wave radio one year for Christmas. I love the thing, only reception isn't great where we live, being a poor location for much but air traffic broadcasts. What I love about it is the variety of stuff I can pick up on good nights. Venezuelan soccer matches, Mass at the Vatican, Cuban propaganda, the BBC World Service, Asian pop. But in my heart of hearts, I know I listen for the crazies, the talk shows and religious broadcasts of certifiable nutcases.

There is none of that on XM Radio, which despite such a variety is fairly tame even if the DJs can swear. Everyone is as nice as can be save on the two political stations, America Left and America Right which feature a variety of boilerplate political call in shows. I have a limited tolerance for this kind of thing, which basically consists of callers arguing with the hosts or kissing their butts. Yawn.

I work the night shift at my office desk job. How I came to listen to XM Radio is that my new day shift "desk buddy" (the person who sits at the desk during the 9 to 5 shift) left me the receiver for her satellite radio one night. The amplifier's been sitting there for weeks, and I've been slobbering over it all this time. I find new technological toys rather fascinating in typical male fashion, so the idea of uncensored satellite radio has been playing with my mind. The radio consists of a boom box style amplifier that a tiny, smaller than a Walkman receiver inserts into. When the insert is placed in, it has a small light up screen that tells you what station you’re listening to, in what category that station falls into, and the name of what is currently playing on that station. Even the commercials have titles that show up on the screen.

The commercials on XM Radio are the same from station to station. There's such things as Car Show Minute and Nascar Minute and advertisements for XM Radio programs. The Travel Update talks about travel to various historical villages or how the Statue of Liberty is open again after security updates following September 11th. I’m not sure how the frequency of commercials plays out, as I spent my evening channel hopping, but I did hear a few commercials more than once. Which is odd, because the XM website has a giant blob of text at the top that states they are “100% Commercial Free Music.” Perhaps Nascar Minute counts as something else, a mini-program? an informational news blurb? C’mon, XM Radio, they’re commercials.

Listening to standard AM/FM radio is a horror I rarely endure. Another coworker listened to an FM news station all night at work. I listened to it for the twenty minutes it took me to drive home and heard the same commercials four times. How people can be satisfied with that sort of behavior is beyond me. There are enough good stations, enough to satisfy most tastes, that if it cuts to a commercial break, you can easily jump from The System's dance music to Nashville with a push of a button. And what a selection there is.

Radio Classics broadcasts old radio shows like "Life of Riley" and “Fibber McGee and Molly” and all those old favorites. It seems rather strange that the newest radio technology hosts a station dedicated to some of the oldest radio shows. I kept hoping for “Lights Out, Everybody” or “The Shadow” but no dice. Sonic Theater offers a more modern version of radio drama but it seems that even with the passage of seventy years the same weaknesses are still inherent in the medium. "Why you pointing that gun at me?" and "What? The lights--someone turned out the lights."

Ngoma provides listeners with all the African music they've been denied on the airwaves. It’s not simply field recordings of tribal songs, but it’s more like listening to the last five minutes of NPR’s “The World” but 24/7. This gorgeously fun, vocally impenetrable music is replete with synthesizers, drum machine beats, and multitracking vocals. The Joint will satisfiy any reggae fans with their mix of the well known and the obscure. Latin music is well represented with Alegria, Aguila, Caliente, and Luna.

My favorite music station is a channel called Unsigned in which anyone without a label can go online and submit their tracks and all the bands you hear are totally unheard elsewhere. (Theoretically. Keri Noble, who has a beautiful voice, apparently now has a record label and a website and all that. So Unsigned may need to update their play list.) This is what radio should be doing, but isn't. Instead, radio seems to believe that their whole existence is predicated on accepting fat payola envelopes so they can run the new Avril Lavigne pile of shit five times in an hour.

One of the benefits of subscription satellite radio is that a song that might get censored elsewhere can be played in its unBowdlerized format. That's definitely a benefit when it comes to my all time favorite blocks, the trio of comedy stations. I could listen to comedy skits all day, wading through the merely average panning for gold, for that one hysterical voice I've never heard before. The format on these stations seems primarily to load up a 100 CD deck and put it on random.

“Talk & Entertainment” which bleeds into "News" boasts the second biggest number or channels after “Rock.” But for the most part, it appears to be made up of audio feeds from television stations. CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News, CSPAN, MSNBC. E!'s channel ran an interview with Kate Winslet that had apparent references to visual elements listeners were denied. The Discovery Channel avoids this with Discovery Radio by having actual call in shows and other informational programs. Somehow into this channel category "Talk & Entertainment" MTV and VH1 also get shows, the emphasis being on music broadcast. This seems a misplacement unless we'll be treated to the bubblegum shows like "Music's Top 100 Fights" or "The Real World."

The category of “Lifestyle” seemed hard to pinpoint. One station seemed to be New Age style music, while another station played Yes, Carl Orff, Procol Harum, Ricky Lee Jones, and the New Age Sally Oldfield. What the fuck is this station? I can't pin it down and that's just fine by me. What is frightening on the other hand is just how much smooth jazz is out there. For the uninitiated, smooth jazz is a ballless, soulless saxophone murmur that apparently is the musical equivalent of kudzu. Not satisfied with total control of every elevator in America, the purveyors of this Kenny G craporama have decided America's airwaves and satellites are next. XM runs smooth jazz in “Lifestyle,” “Christian,” and “Jazz.” Perhaps it’ll soon join “Talk & Entertainment” and “Latin.” Kenny G with back up maracas.

Also among the jazz stations is Frank's Place, dedicated to Frank Sinatra and his contemporaries with an emphasis on Ol' Blue Eyes. This is paired with Hank's Place which provides the same service for fans of Hank Williams Sr. and his peers. These stations come with the distinct honor of being favorites of no less a luminary than Willie Nelson. Very choice music that you could easily spend weeks listening to before the urge for something new would come over you.

Christians are represented by three stations. The Torch offers rockin' songs about Jesus for all those cool kids wearing WWJD bracelets and having clean, anesthetized fun. The Fish is a nationally syndicated show featuring what apparently is Christian smooth jazz and gospel. The Spirit is black oriented god-music being a blend of gospel, hip-hop, and other styles praising Jesus. In what you'd have to see as a marketing stroke of good luck, the Christian stations occupy channels 31, 32, and 33. I’m guessing spring on these stations is chock full of bloody crucifying fun.

Movie lovers will no doubt enjoy Cinemagic which features songs from movie soundtracks interspersed with audio scenes from the film. When I dropped in, they were in the midst of Apocalypse Now with The Doors, then a scene from the movie, then some of Carmine Coppola's wacky, dated synthesizer score. There simply is a station for just about anyone and anything. On Broadway lets you listen in on the last eighty years of Broadway shows. I heard songs from Singin’ in the Rain and Avenue Q.

The category of “Classical” was underrepresented, though in time, as XM Radio grows in popularity, and as older and more sophisticated listeners join in, I expect that will change. The three stations seemed to focus primarily on the same Beethoven sonatas you hear every day on your own “local” classical station.

There is a decade category that lets you hear hits going back to the 1940s and up to the present. My biggest gripe in this category is that the 1980s station seemed to live in the same oblivious category of 80s CD collections and 80s dance nights at clubs when I was in college. To wit, this mindset seems to imagine an 80s in which no one apparently ever listened, let alone heard of, hair bands. It's all New Wave hits with an occasional foray to chart toppers like Genesis' "Land of Confusion." Somehow Motley Crüe became megamillionaires, though no one who lived through the 80s seems to admit having ever bought a single record. Did I just imagine all that? C'mon, folks, admit it. You owned a Great White tape. You did. Yes, you did. Just admit it and move on with your life.

I can easily see the value of such a service for long driving trips (and I understand XM Radio is quite popular with truckers. Anyone who listens to any of the country stations will hear the dedications: "This one's going out to T.J. from Hurricane. T.J.'s in Nebraska on his way to Maine."). Never mind the nostalgists who proclaim the value of listening to regional radio to get a feel for the areas you drive through. Clear Channel and their ilk have made that a moot point mostly. And in any event, the people who say such things are the same dingalings you meet at parties, vinyl purists who spend their lives trying to make you feel how unhip you and everyone not them are in comparsion. They are to be ignored.

XM Radio, for the brief time I got to enjoy it, was a completely fulfilling musical experience. If it wasn’t a subscription service, I’d no doubt be saving up for an XM Radio receiver right this minute. Perhaps in the near future, satellite radio will be made up of several competing bands like XM. It is the future of radio, and someday soon, the FM dial will feature the same cranks that are taking over AM and that I meet every time I plug in my shortwave.

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