If you believe, as I do, that there are few ideas more beautiful than the idea of radio, then you are condemned to become a kind of audio Don Juan, moving from bed to bed, loathing some, enjoying others, but never meeting an actual lover who can measure up to your ideal for more than a few minutes at a time. Just as the swinger keeps his eyes peeled for a skirt swaying in the distance, I’m always stalking radio, hoping to find the station, the format, the one. I’ve kept looking for radio in all the wrong places–restaurants, bars, the street.
Still, even I never thought I’d date TV.
Two hundred channels. That’s what they promised us at my building’s tenants meeting. “If you vote for DirecTV satellite service instead of cable, you’ll have 200 channels!” What the sales rep wasn’t saying was that once we got the 200 channels, 30 of them would be a big blank screen with a Tex Ritter song coming out of it. In other words, about 15 per cent of our new digital dynamo of next-millennium beamed-from-space entertainment would essentially function not unlike quaint old-fashioned radio. It was almost like being in love.
Many of the channels go by cute names. Oh, there are the Beths and Kates and Debbies–channels named Rap or Blues or Metal or Jazz. But there’s a nicknaming process at work as well that pits sister against sister, offering Lite Jazz, too; or Gospel against Contemporary Christian, Today’s Country or Classic Country, ’80s Power Hits and ’70s Super Hits, Classical Masterpieces versus the supposedly sweeter, dumber Lite Classical. If it sounds arbitrary, it is. If it sounds like a lot of artists get bounced back and forth, they do. Someone, who shall remain Jackson Browne, really gets around, ingratiating himself into ’70s Super Hits and Classic Rock and Soft Rock.
Here’s how it works. At the top of the black screen, the genre is identified. At the bottom, a horizontal blue band flashes the artist/tune/album/label info pertaining to the song you hear, including an 888 telephone number through which you may purchase the CD it comes from. So if you’re doing what I call “watchening” the Rap channel and you need, need, need Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “We Just Wanna Party With You,” you can just call up and order the soundtrack to Men in Black. Unlike radio, there’s no between-song banter, no traffic, no weather, no ads–only segues. Which means that no announcer’s going to offend–or delight. And, also unlike radio, singers can say what they want. This is subscriber television, and if Cake says, “Shut the fuck up,” that’s what you hear.
I find myself channel surfing from one blank black screen to another more often than I care to admit. Part of the problem is that I use the channels for all the wrong reasons. If they’re meant to work as radio, or even as Muzak, then you’re supposed to click into one of them and stay put, settle in with Easy Listening and start sweeping floors and paying the bills, right? And yet to me, these 30 maddening little options are too fascinating and too odd to just leave be. How can I get on with my life if Classic Country, normally the terrain of my faves like George Jones and Kitty Wells, is playing John Schneider, formerly of TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard? What’s he doing there? How can I do the dishes when I’m busy constructing Kennedy-Krushchev standoffs by flipping back and forth between Woody Herman’s “Sidewalks of Cuba” on Big Band and the Steve Miller Band’s “Living in the U.S.A.” on Classic Rock?
Unlike the rest of television–where when something’s dumb, you know that one or more dumb people are responsible–the music channels are organized to give the impression that no actual human beings are involved in their design, programming, or upkeep. I couldn’t shake that sci-fi feeling, couldn’t help but wonder if the entire concept sprang from the loins of artificial intelligence, if the droids were plotting against us, placating us flesh’n’bloods with Haydn and the Dave Clark Five.
Maybe I felt like computers were responsible because I continued to find the experience so surprising. People think that commercial radio is unimaginative because the computers generate the playlists. But have you listened to some all-computer-generated playlists? They’re weird. They’re fun. They segue Tone Loc into the Lemonheads in such a way that neither Tone Loc nor the Lemonheads ever sounded so strange or so good. It’s the people in commercial radio who are the problem. The announcers are the real robots.
I was stuck on channel 516 the other day (Solid Gold Oldies) and all I could do was sit and stare and wonder what would happen next. Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John” smashed into Fats Domino’s “Whole Lotta Loving,” which was followed by Bing Crosby doing “Silent Night” into “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” It was great! And I don’t particularly like any of those songs! But the whole thing’s a murder mystery, a whodunit about the brutal slaying of common (human) sense. Plus, unlike the computer-programmed oldies radio station with the itsy bitsy playlist I sometimes listen to, I doubt I’ll hear these songs again. The trons must have a bottomless warehouse of records to allow them to program an unending lineup of deliciously nutso choices.
At Music Choice, the Philadelpia company that supplies DirecTV with the music channels, vice president of marketing and communications Christina Tancredi confirmed my suspicions about the record warehouse, pointing out that she heard her local oldies radio station “has a playlist of around 350 songs, whereas ours has 3000.” Tancredi’s coworker Lou Simon, a senior vice president of programming, says that each genre has its own programmer and that these people go about planning a channel’s broadcast day “as if they’re making tapes for a friend’s car. The idea is to keep it very varied. We take painstaking care to massage into place a list of songs to create long times spent with the service.” Massage? “We work out the kinks.”
Simon claims the programmers spend a lot of the workday just listening to music, and “not only on major labels, but also small, even homegrown labels. A record sent to us by an individual artist will get as much attention as one that’s on a major label with a major distributor. And we don’t really worry about what’s selling. Your next-door neighbor could get 10 cuts on.” As an example, he points to the Dutch New Age duo Secret Garden, who Music Choice were playing long before their European record label released their music in America.
Still, I spent an afternoon keeping track of Alternative Rock and all I heard was the fodder of the less-than-homegrown Virgin, DGC, Polydor, and Mercury. I’ve met a lot of my neighbors, and David Bowie isn’t one of them. And Nirvana is about as punk as it gets. I’ve never even heard the Clash, much less Pansy Division.
When Simon said that the goal of Music Choice is to keep listeners listening for as long as possible, I was actually surprised. As a nondriving radio fanatic, one of the things I despise about the bulk of American radio is that it doesn’t account for me. Its constant repetition assumes either mobility or amnesia, never making room for those of us in… rooms. Music Choice, on the other hand, wants me. To them, I’m a consumer. And in America, that means that I belong.
Music Choice isn’t about epiphanies, or the backbreaking hours they require. It’s about rooting around the bottomless pit of perfectly good music and tossing it all up to the surface all the time. It’s Mott the Hoople and Oklahoma! and the later years of R.E.M. Which is not such a terrible thing, though I sometimes feel terrible liking it. I don’t always want to run away from annoyance.
My Music Choice habit isn’t a guilty pleasure. (I don’t believe in guilt where pleasure’s concerned.) It’s more of a guilty solace, that solid, taciturn guy you date after the reckless, fast-talking heartthrob picks a fight one too many times. One can weary of disappointment, and what’s more disappointing than radio, a medium that’s all the more infuriating because it occasionally doles out little moments that can only be called ecstasy? Thanks to Music Choice, I listen to radio less. Because it’s tasteful; because it’s television; because it won’t break my heart.