News of Clear Channel buying the great WFNX, one of the last independent commercial stations with a point of view in the New England, hit me harder than I would have anticipated. Things have been going down this road for more than a decade. And since Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, consolidation of media ownership happened as quickly, and with as ugly consequences as even the most dire of predictions. I don’t know enough about the sale of WFNX specifically to say that it would not have gotten sold without that 1996 act, but it certainly would not have gone to the gargantuan, monolithic “could not seem more like a corporate villain in a movie” Texas-based Clear Channel, responsible for some of the all-time worst media programming. Just as weakening of financial regulations led to the financial meltdown, these sorts of loosening of regulations inevitably have outcomes, generally negative. There is usually a reason that such legislation gets enacted. And there are likewise reasons for the repeal and/or slackening of such rules: money and campaign donations.
Enough of the political aspect. I am so sick of and disappointed by politics that I feel to waste more space on it is bad karma. Let’s talk about the personal aspects of this. WFNX was on the forefront of 1980s and 1990s commercial radio’s last-gasp of innovation, open-mindedness, and, frankly success. Yes, they were early supporters of Buffalo Tom. But they were instrumental in the huge commercial acceptance of Nirvana and the victories scored for little old alternative bands that came through the busted-open doors. Previous to that, WFNX was the first place most kids heard of the Cure and the Smiths, REM, and so on. We used to travel the world. While there were great programs on state-supported radio in Europe, the U.K., and Australia, we would mostly go to college radio when we toured the States in the early (pre-Nirvana) days. Most kids in the middle of the country lived for 120 Minutes on MTV, or imported issues of British music papers Melody Maker, Sounds, and, NME, to find out about new music. We knew we were lucky to have WFNX and even the less-adventurous WBCN (which had once been as innovative and maverick as WFNX would become). We had long been aware of our good fortune as music fans to have college stations like WMBR and — back before it became the Grateful Dead-Jack Johnson Station — WERS. But it was the precious few commercial stations that had the strong signals and the listenership that allowed us to make a living. It was stations like WFNX who had us visit on each record and sponsored shows like this one, with the Pearl Jam billed under Buffalo Tom. Whatever happened to those guys?
We long ago gave up trying to make a living at music. In 1999, I still had some hope. But by then we saw the writing on the wall. It said “Limp Bizkit.” The CD era that had kept the major labels alive was ending as file-sharing began. We all know the rest of the story. It’s interesting, I am writing a book about the music of the Rolling Stones, tracing the band’s history through their songs. Singles were events back in the mid-’60s. And then, albums became even bigger events through the ’70s, all the way into the 1990s. When the Stones were touring America for the first time, it was still a nation with highly distinctive regional cultures. Radio stations were responsible for the hits of their area. So the Stones might only play to 300 in Michigan, and 3000 in Boston. And there would be breakout records in areas of the country that might or might not lead to more widespread success. This was still true in the 1990s when bands in the south like the Connells would be rock stars and then come to play to 30 people in the Blue Wall at UMass. But such regionalism also vaulted bands like the Dave Matthews Band, for better or worse.
The world is a smaller place and we all get fed the same thing, usually dispiriting dreck. A recent drive across central Florida depressed me as I had the radio on scan, with my kids getting excited every time the same Katy Perry song came on. Their father exacted his revenge on the way home, however, when I stumbled across a college station in Tampa playing some vintage ’60s and ’70s soul and R&B with a unique cast of characters on the mic. But after their initial groans and lamentations that the music was not what they knew, and it must be old since their father seemed happy, my daughter genuinely became engaged in the songs, just as she had been before she got into school and became aware of what all the other kids listened to. I don’t expect her to listen to her father’s record collection like the subject of a recent satire in the Onion, but the opportunity to stumble across something different on the radio is rapidly passing. Maybe the days of radio being responsible for such exposure is over now that the Internet allows endlessly deep exploration. But recorded music as an income stream has narrowed down to a drip — with each drop highly lucrative for the lucky winners. And you have to be your own gatekeeper, so only the truly curious and energetic will dig below the surface to try to uncover new and interesting music, or old and interesting music. There are such gatekeepers on the web, such as Pitchfork on one end and Al Kooper’s New Music fo Old People and Red Kelly’s excellent The B-Side on the other end of the spectrum. But gone is John Peel. Oedipus has not been on a commercial station regularly for many years. Vin Scelsa is on satellite.
But the faded importance of terrestrial radio was that it was a pillar of financial support and viability to even working class bands like Buffalo Tom. They supported us right up until the end, with interviews with the great Julie Kramer and WFNX-alum Angie C. for our 25th anniversary this past fall. Funny, just this past week, I was reminded of a radio interview that I guess I reflexively and defensively forgot about as quickly as as I finished it. I happened to be at a meeting for the real estate company I am affiliated with. Months ago, WFNX on-air newsman and morning personality, Henry Santoro, asked me, “so, I am thinking about getting into real estate. How do you like Hammond?” Soon enough, he joined one of the local offices. So, just a day or two before the announced sale of WFNX, here we were at this meeting at a hotel along Rt. 128, having a glass of wine at the reception. We got to talking about about the station, people who have come or gone, and so on. He reminded me that WFNX interviewed me fairly recently. They paired up the lovely Angie with some wacky morning guy who knew nothing about me and just asked some stupid unfunny questions that I mainly ignored. I honestly had forgotten all about it and can recall no details of it. But Henry was supposed to listen from home, as they were auditioning this obnoxious juvenile from the Northwest, who had taken some station “from worst to first” in the ratings. Drinking my wine, I just shook my head as Henry reminded me of it, two guys that were once having a blast in the 1990s heyday for interesting commercial music at some real estate meeting telling war stories and sharing disappointment about the current state of things. Move along, old timers! Somehow, when I was 21, I could sort of envision something like this.
As I was leaving, Henry shouted out, “Hey Bill, if you ever need anything played on the radio, let me know.”
Though this song was written a while ago, the lyric and the music really seems fitting to the post. I have taken more than a month away from the project as I have been insanely busy with too many project, work, the book, music for hire, coaching soccer, etc. I think I have one more song for it. Then I will look into packaging it physically.
Previous songs collected here. Please pass along to others and spread the word. I have no publicist!
All songs ©Bill Janovitz
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