MTV’s airing of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles, in its 1981 debut, marked the beginning of radio’s demise. Through 1990s, conglomerates bought up the market, limiting listeners to several stations playing essentially the same songs. The popularity of iPod further eroded the market share, and stations are responding by changing their formats… and pretty much anything goes.
A local station in the Bay Area is playing “whatever,” while another advertises it’s “anything goes.” You shouldn’t be surprised to hear Avril Lavigne alongside Radio Head, or the Talking Heads, or Talk Talk or even Gwen Stefanie. And eighties music is making a comeback, but it’s nothing like the 1980s format. Once 91X, a modern rock station in San Diego, played a Quiet Riot song to the disdain of listeners who tuned in to hear the latest English Beat song. Anomalies of that sort didn’t happen often back in the 1980s, but, today, one regularly hears Depeche Mode and Van Halen in the same hour. That’s not eighties music; that’s a mutation.
While one might call the new format progressive–we don’t need no stinking categories–one might also call it desperate… a desperate attempt to recapture the market from iPod. It’s what’s on those personal playlists, stored on your iPod or mp3 player, that’s giving stations the idea to play just whatever.
A typical playlist on an mp3 player is eclectic. It reflects the personality of the owner. My mp3 player features the entire catalog of Johnny Cash and U2 alongside albums from Black Sabbath and early renaissance composers. Streaming radio is even more eclectic, as services allow users to establish a theme around which he or she selects songs. You’d be amazed at what you get mixing the Go-Go’s with Bob Dylan.
Radio is anxious to catch up, mimicking what it thinks is on your iPod. The new format is clever, but it’s still radio for the masses. It’s the same old thing, only more random, and randomness has nothing to do with choices. For the new format to work, it has to reflect the personality of either its listeners (good luck) or else its programmer. In the latter case, radio will have to give its DJs the freedom to really choose, and not just from some pre-assigned list of hits across the ages. (I swear, I’ve heard the same damn Nirvana songs on nearly every station.) The question remains: Is radio capable of personality?