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FM Radio Is Dead - Long Live FM Radio!
By Mick Polich - 06/09/2008 - 07:55 AM EDT

Inevitably, it had to happen: “Yeah, back when FM radio was REAL radio, you could hear any style, why, ANYTHING THAT YOU WANTED TO HEAR!!!”

That’s the voice of Codgerville ( nee “old hippie Codgerville”) talking about dem changes in our now-entrenched media – radio. Of course, you find eclectic radio all over the globe still, but back in da day, it was fairly easy (for that time, anyway): just head to that semi-exotic locale called “FM” and check it out, dad…..

So, what’s happened?

Hey Howdy Doody, wake the @#$$ UP, dude! There’s streaming, podcasts, web exclusives, college radio – the indie spirit is still there, just gotta get with the times and move, son!

When did this all start for broadcasting where we could go for something different, beyond commercial confines? Yeah, Howard Stern, Opie and Cow - likker, WHOMEVER – you can do or say whatever you want if somebody is willing to foot the bill and take the heat – but let’s move up the Intello-gents Meter a bit. Back in the early 1960’s, a little zenith of an idea, commercial free radio, was making a mark at about the same time of the rise of the ‘counter-culture’ in world society.

FM radio started for geeks and outsiders, bred by geeks and outsiders – at the time, science provided a virtually static-free, sonically enhanced wave of broadcasting that sounded a hell of a lot better in reception than what the old Philco was putting out. Coupled that move with some people (especially the emerging counter-culture) that were sick of the “Good Guy” radio format that played Top 40 hits (yes, the top forty songs that were burning up the charts at the time, chickadees….) from morning until night (hmmm…sounds A LOT like DJ – free/ machine –driven programming NOW…..).

Why did I like FM radio? Because somebody said it was UNDERGROUND, and whenever that phrase was spoken during the 1960’s, it meant that you were sticking it to the MAN……

I’d say 1968,1969, was when I received my first portable AM/FM/multi-band/cassette deck unit, and that’s when I first discovered not only FM radio, but broadcasts from other countries as well (“Wait? Is that INDIA?” as I thought about where the disembodied, crackling voice was broadcasting from – hell, I was surrounded by CORNFIELDS: anyplace was out of town to me…). This opened the usual world o’ possibilities when you discover this stuff: there is radio beyond AM and Top 40 (not to mention the hog, soybean, and cattle futures for the farm market).

Now, there is radio anywhere beyond the confines of the bandwidths of my youth: anywhere the computer or like devices go, you can get broadcasts.

Romanticism aside, streaming, podcasts, and computer radiocasts are cool stuff. Last year, John Behm Jr., my good friend, bassist, and singer extraordinaire from Mason City, Iowa, sent me a streamed videocast of  singer/songwriter Steve Earle doing a concert at a church in Ireland – lovely! Check out You Tube – my past in variety show television (“Hulabaloo”, “The T.A.M.I. Show”) pops up along with the truly weird (Russian t.v. showing a broadcast of a Chinese orchestra doing a version of “Smoke On The Water” – it is to be experienced!). As amazed as I was as a 10-year with the open-mindedness of FM and world-radio broadcasting, what is happening now with programming technology is even cooler.

So……what am I trying to re-capture, as it always seems to put a burr in my saddle, from my YOUTH????

Well, it’s there – in college and independent music-oriented programming: the truly catholic tastes of a wide (and I mean wider than wide) variety of music genres, colliding and opening up old and new vistas. For me, I’m okay with hearing Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” followed by an indie –label act just emerging on the scene, followed by fusion-period Weather Report, then a metal tune, then a world-beat African song, etc. AND…. if you gotta put them on different shows on the same station, that’s cool, too. WREK – FM back in Atlanta, GA. was like that – I found myself being that 10-year old again, discovering this cool palette of sounds, bifurcating in several musical genres - I recorded WREK shows all week, over several years, on tape and CD during our Atlanta stay.

The allure to alternative radio programming has been part the interest in finding music and programs ‘out of the norm’, and part coolness factor. You’re kinda of thrusting the ol’ bird at the ‘Establishment’ when you support college radio, small-wattage stations, and ‘Net streaming of the little known artifacts that we can download for our listening pleasures (NPR does this to a degree, but the novelty and allure of being “FM only” during those heady years in the 1970’s, is submerged – NPR is big biz now, which is fine – I’ll listen to them first over some of the other inane stuff out there…).

Again, what appealed to me early on? Not just the eclectic nature of the music selections, but early FM stations would broadcast public awareness shows (the holdover being local talk radio on AM, but with a hipper format – I mean, this was the 1970’s, when there was a trinkle of social action left over – I couldn’t have GRADUATED high school with out those ‘social awareness’ classes to push my grade point over!!), old radio shows from the 1930’s thru the 1950’s, new radio shows such as the National Lampoon Radio Hour, and local concerts. I remember the original KFMG FM broadcasted the Wadena Rock Festival from Wadena, Ia., back August 1st thru the 3rd, 1970. THAT I remember tuning into; I was around 11, close to 12 years old – it was such a big thing – ooooh, ’counterculture’ comes to the farms and hills of Iowa, drenching our fair land with them goddam hippies and their luv culture!!!! HIDE THE SHEEP AND LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS!!!

Granted, all this was cool stuff, at least to my ears, but it couldn’t possibly last. To the general public, technology just gave us more options, and people just plain cooled to the idea of an eccentric broadcast system. As with all things in pop culture, FM went to the colleges, slugged it out with talk radio, then finally settled into low-wattage stations, podcasts, and ‘Net streaming for survival. The CONCEPT and IDEALISM remains, though, funded via school programs or the kindness of strangers thru pledge drives annually.

“A Prairie Home Companion” is a prime example of a long-running public radio show that started small (Minnesota PR back in 1974), and has blossomed into a multi-level NPR related industry. Even before we were hooked up, my wife and I listened to “Prairie Home” whenever we could – being Iowans, we were close enough to get all the Minnesota and small-town derived humor: even though we were desperately searching for our own youthful identities thru the 1960’s-into-1970’s hangovers of the counter-culture, we always understood our roots. Garrison Keillor was the right guy to make us laugh, and be a bit wistful about our Midwestern values and mores back in the day, and he still is!! But by bringing “Prairie” to the world, it is a early FM radio business example that clicked and cha-jinged it’s way to survival…..

Thank the Lord and pass the potatoes for on-line streaming at this point – the great equalizer for small market radio. Ron Sorenson, a Des Moines legend in radio (worked the original, aforementioned KFMG, and it’s brainchild on DSM cable, KBLE), has resurrected KFMG FM once again – it’s local broadcast signal isn’t that far reaching, but it streams, as per the norm, on-line. That’s a little piece of home for me, which is o.k. – kinda like the salary cap in the NFL, streaming has leveled the playing field so that we can pick up our favorite little stations all over the globe.

Miss  that big ol’ clunky Craig AM/FM/world band stereo cassette boom box that I had……………NOT! Even my old man would say, ”What are ya, crazy? Put that baby on display and get up with the times, pardner!”  As progress moves in our lives, you can find good, and bad, in everything – one thing is for certain: things are gonna change, and it’s up to us to find the SPIRIT of what lies in the next change. I don’t really want everything in the ‘Outsider Music Program, Circa 1968 –1975’ to thrust me back to “Dem Good Ol’ Days, Boss” – we’re gonna have people who will always create and play music outside the ’norm’, and radio stations to play that stuff all over the world. Does it matter how it comes to us ( now I’m talkin’ to the Anti-Streaming/ Digital Groups here, hoss…)? Good gravy, things are more ACCESSIBLE NOW for picking up our fav-o-rite odd ball music!! HAARUMP (I didn’t get a haarump outta you – you watch your ass!)!

So, what’s happen to the good, ol’ yesteryore of FM radio like I grew up on and so fondly admired? Nothing – it’s just gone in spirit to another home! It’s out there – look for it; you’ll find it, man!

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