The Death of Rock Radio?

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I draw your attention to this essay in Slate by Christine Pawlak, an alt-rock DJ who was let go from her jobs in Chicago and Philly when her stations changed formats. Her thesis: that “a handful of executives have decided that rock radio doesn’t belong on the FM dial” as its listeners flee to iTunes and other outlets.

She’s half right. They’re making that assumption, no doubt, but much of the reason listeners are fleeing to other media is because those executives, through previous decisions, have made those stations suck.

Primarily, they’ve gotten stale. The “classic rock” format plays the same 300 songs over and over, while the “alternative rock” or “modern rock” formats play a different 300 songs, while sprinkling in some new ones. Who wouldn’t get bored and look elsewhere? In the heyday of radio, DJs were people you trusted to program their own shows and turn you on to new music. Now, computers pick the songs based on focus groups and DJs are forced to record, in Pawlak’s words, “a show to sound live or local when it’s neither.”

Her last statement is her most poignant: “Once we knew that the end was near, Q101’s programming department let the DJs pick their own music. I “dusted off” songs I hadn’t played in years, like “Little Black Backpack” by Stroke 9, The Cure’s “Lullaby,” and “Song for the Dumped” by Ben Folds Five. I played newer artists I’ve grown to love: Mumford and Sons, Foster the People, and naturally, Muse. I allowed myself to be nostalgic, emotional, and honest.”

Imagine that. Why didn’t they always let her do that? Rock fans aren’t just loyal; they’re also passionate. They’re not pop fans!! You want to keep them excited? Play Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light” instead of “Misty Mountain Hop” for the 70th time this week. Let Nirvana fans hear “Territorial Pissings” on their commute home. Trot out some old psychedelic surf song.

In short, let DJs be DJs.

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