Radio Blah-Blah

Radio Blah-Blah: Saving the Radio One Frank Ocean Song at a Time


The death of the radio is a pretty commonly accepted as a fact at this point. It’s declining as an industry — though much like its friends print journalism and broadcast television, it keeps chugging along — but any cultural relevancy it once had is long in the past.

The attitude seems to be that this is an inevitable part of the advancement of technology. Listening to the radio is no longer the most convenient way to listen to music in your car or in your office. Most people have their own eclectic personal music taste and can only really be satisfied by their own playlists. Want to discover music you haven’t heard before but will probably like? Spotify Discover Weekly is going to work a lot better than the radio.

Broadcast television is an equally outdated medium, but it has managed to stay more relevant than the radio for two reasons: live television still holds value, and the companies that produce broadcast television continue to do great work. It’s the golden era of television — “Peak TV” people seem to call it now. And even if a lot of the great stuff we consider “TV” right now is being produced for the internet or consumed on the internet, the broadcast companies still produce a large amount of the content.

The radio has no comparison for live TV. Radio broadcasts of sporting events are novelty at best, and I have to imagine a radio broadcast of an awards show would be quite dull. So the only other option is for the radio to produce a high quality product.

I still like to listen to the radio, for reasons I don’t always understand. But if you spend time listening to the radio, you probably understand why it is irrelevant in the same way I do: the people who decide what music to play on the radio are stupid.

"Pop and hip-hop radio stations insist on playing the same 10-15 songs they know their audience will respond to instead of trying to actually influence the culture and introduce listeners to something new. It’s safe business — but it has killed the radio."

Okay, so I know “the radio plays bad music” is not an earth-shattering revelation. But I’m not anti-pop or anti-rap. We’re in a golden age of pop music right now and the radio will sometimes manage to stumble into playing some of this great pop music despite itself. The radio’s utter inability to get out of its own way and play great music has contributed to its cultural downfall more than Spotify or the iPhone.

Pop and hip-hop radio stations insist on playing the same 10-15 songs they know their audience will respond to instead of trying to actually influence the culture and introduce listeners to something new. It’s safe business — but it has killed the radio.

This summer has been as good of an example as any. It was an amazing season for pop music, but that was impossible to tell by listening to the radio.

Frank Ocean, Rae Sremmurd, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Young Thug all put out great projects with great, accessible songs on them. If you turned on 97.1 AMP Radio or REAL 92.3, you could hear “Panda,” the abysmal breakout single by Desiigner, or the same three Drake songs over and over again (only one of which was that great). If you turned on POWER 106, you could experience your one millionth listen of “Might Not,” that song by The Weeknd and two rappers who I have never heard of and will never hear of again.

I’m not asking KISS FM to play James Blake, or for Death Grips to start blaring when my car stereo starts up. Logically, why doesn’t Frank Ocean play on the radio? “Blonde” was a number one album, and there are a handful of songs from it that could and should be hits in their own right. Rae Sremmurd and Carly Rae Jepsen have both had huge radio hits in the past, and their new work is better than anything they have done before.

This isn’t just me complaining that the radio doesn’t play songs that I like. The radio is supposed to be a communal music experience; something that everyone experiences in the same way. This type of thing is extremely rare in modern pop culture. So when we have a chance to have it, I want that chance to be honored.

Sure, there are radio alternatives like satellite radio, and more independent stations like the one we have here, KCRW. But these don’t really contribute to the communal music opportunities of the radio. Independent radio stations are niche by nature; it’s the very reason they exist. And satellite radio consists of hundreds of channels, each catering to a different niche audience.

A big thing in music publications over the last few years has been identifying the song of the summer. They do posts predicting the song of the summer, checking in with the progress of the song of the summer, and eventually determining what it was once the season ends. The factors that play into this are usually fan consensus, critical consensus, and, yes, radio play.

This year, most of my favorite music publications threw their hands in the air. They gave up on determining a song of the summer. Some reluctantly named “One Dance” or, even more reluctantly, “Panda.”

But those songs only really fit into one of the categories: radio play. I don’t know many people who genuinely still like either of those songs, and I haven’t read anything on many publications indicating they like either of those songs. They just got played on the radio a lot.

Having a song of the summer is one of the great joys of music. A song that comes on at a party where literally every person present feels the same excitement. We can have this again, and the path there is lit by a better radio.

Radio stations making interesting, bold, or just generally smart music choices is the easiest way to make the enthusiasm about pop match the high quality of pop music being released. If we can find a way to save the radio — or convince the radio stations to save themselves — it will mean better conversation, better parties, and most importantly, better music.