As MTV ushered in the new frontier of music videos and 24-hour music television, the first video it played seemed like a warning shot across the bow of the music industry — it was Video Killed the Radio Star a synth-pop hit by a British New Wave band called The Buggles. The new format (for music) was threatening the established and ingrained radio industry.
Modernity and technology, it appeared, would force radio stations far and wide to become more relevant or go the way of full-service gas stations and the home delivery of milk.
As it turned out, video didn’t kill radio because the radio industry did a fine job, over the last three decades, of annihilating itself.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise — the incessant corporate push towards homogeneity that has occurred throughout the United States is beyond palpable. “Mom-and-pop” operations are nearing extinction. In media, particularly in the most intimate format, radio, the takeover of corporate behemoths has eliminated every and any regional appeal and charm that local radio offered. It has sublimated the lively, unique sounds that depict a city with a tasteless, mindless drone. At some point, our once distinguishable and varied radio waves became nothing more than insipid, prepackaged schlock.
Can anyone, older than a prepubescent child, listen to a pop station for longer than two minutes? If you surveyed your friends and neighbors, you would find the answer to be a resounding “No.” With the exception of public and college radio stations, Miami radio sounds like the rest of the country, a bland, inane mush.
In Miami, the abysmal trend isn’t confined to English-language radio, it has spilled over into Spanish-language stations, which have extracted most Cuban rhythms from their airwaves and, instead, serenade Miami listeners with syrupy ballads, Mexican pop and a disturbing mélange of reggaeton and fluffy hip-hop.
The corporate takeover of radio was the death knell for music. The days of music labels developing artists and shaping culture are long gone. Over the last several decades, bean counters and attorneys have replaced music-savvy executives. Music industry taste makers now hail from institutions like the Wharton School of Business and the results are painfully audible.
Radio was the polling booth for popular music. It also served as the squawk box for local concerns and issues. We can still hear a semblance of local opinions on sports-talk radio. However, I wonder if we need three, 24-hour stations chatting about free throws and NFL drafts?
A while back, the Darth Vaders of the radio business somehow convinced us (it was more like imposed on us) the notion that news talk or topical conversation was drab and passé. (The exception is WLRN in South Florida, which does community programming and an hourlong public affairs show on Fridays.)
That particular mindset of corporate-run stations was self-serving for the radio czars — sports talk radio is much more malleable. It is easy to target and identify listeners, thus making the format easier to sell to advertisers than thorny and often times controversial political content.
A resounding example of the effects of the lack of civic discourse and engagement in our town is easily attained by asking any Miamian, “Who plays point guard for the Miami Heat? There’s a good chance that they will readily tell you its Mario Chalmers. In contrast, just above 10 percent of eligible voters turned out for our last election. Is this not the “dumbing down” of a community?
I challenge local radio stations to unleash and unshackle their on-air personalities (formerly known as disc jockeys) and allow them to play music and chat about issues in a way that reflects local tastes and interests — all the while preserving our unique blend of flavors and highlighting our undeniable panache. If this defiant plea for creativity and originality seems scary and overwhelming, then I recommend they experiment with a single, prominent part of the day.
Something tells me radio stations that unleash their DJs will be the toast of the town, and their ratings will reflect it.