Radio killed the radio star

24 Jan

I bet he's listening to Nirvana ...

Now, an ode to my iPod.

How do iLove thee? Let me count the ways.

You soothe my morning commute and keep me alert all the way home. You make going out for a jog in 18-degree weather possible. You stay by my side on long flights and short treks to the grocery store. You even sing to me in the shower. Whither thou goest, so goest I.

(Clearly I need more friends.)

To keep the tunes fresh without wearing out my favorites, I abide by some self-imposed rules when listening to my iPod. One is that if there’s a good shuffle going on, don’t give up the groove: keep it going. Thing is, you can get so deep into your catalog you can’t get back out. Last summer, one shuffle lasted through my entire library, which was about 2,600 songs at the time. I got real hinky about it, too. About 900 songs in, I fretted that my daughter would jump in the car and automatically switch to listen to Aerosmith or somesuch. About 1,800 songs in, I feared the iPod would freeze up and I’d have to reset it, losing all that progress. I sweated throught the final 100 songs until at last, Song #2631 played. The shuffle wrapped with a Beatles classic, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and I felt like I’d completed an aural cleanse. I was ready to go back to choosing my own music.

My iPod library has grown to about 4,600 songs, which is about all my hardy, early model 28GB can hold.  I’m not entirely sure what I’ve got on the thing anymore and wanted to find out.  So, rather than inviting the the anxiety of a multi-month shuffle, I’m doing something equally idiosyncratic: I’m listening to all the songs in alphabetical order. From “A-Punk” by Vampire Weekend to U2’s “Zooropa, then through the numerical titles from the Plain White T’s “1,2,3,4” through the Nails’ “88 Lines About 44 Women,” I’m hearing every last song. I started in September; I’ve got about another 700 songs to go. For about six months, any time I turn on the tunes, I’ll probably like every song I hear … unlike when I listen to commerical radio, which is rarer and rarer. 

I wish I could find a great rock radio station that I don’t have to pay for. Yet even on XM, the narrowness of a station’s format tends to play the good stuff to death quickly. There are only so many spots for new material, given the burgeoning catalogue of oldies but goodies, and there’s way too much pop on the airwaves for my taste. (This is complicated further on the Canadian rock stations we can hear in the metro Detroit area, which are required to devote at least 50% of their programming to the Barenaked Ladies.) I guess Elvis Costello was on to something 30 years ago:

That said, there was a lot of romance surrounding radio that’s missing in the Pandora/Rhapsody/iTunes era: the thrill of catching a broadcast from hundreds of miles away with music you might not hear in your town. The medium itself has inspired a lot of great music: “Rock and Roll Radio” by the Ramones and “Rock and Roll” by the Velvet Underground are just two examples. And, my beloved Tom Petty wrote  The Last DJ concept album as a tribute to the power of heartfelt music freely shared. While the title track is pedantic (and ironic now that Tom’s a DJ on XM, which you can’t get for free),  the rest of the album delivers the goods:

Radio was a communal experience that can’t happen when you’re the only one plugged into your earbuds. Now that I choose all my own music, I run the danger of limiting myself to only the songs I like. That’s why I continue to share an iTunes library with my daughter – she keeps up on new material as I get her to bone up on the classics.

So what began as an ode to the iPod closes as an elegy to commercial radio. No, the medium’s not dead – as my friends who work in radio will be the first to tell me – but my relationship to it has changed. I’m hearing other people now. There are other iFish in the sea.

Hey kids: next time you need some astral advice, instead of consulting the I Ching, consult the iPod. Hit Shuffle, listen to the first three random songs and interpret them as some sort of portent of the future. Laugh at this if you must, but I swear it works. Years ago when we had decided after much contemplation to move from San Francisco to Michigan, I did this and the songs that came up were the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreaming,” David Bowie’s “Panic in Detroit” and “Here’s Where the Story Ends” by the Sundays. It was as if Steve Jobs had a window into my soul …

See you on the flip side.

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3 Responses to “Radio killed the radio star”

  1. Gail January 25, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    The best radio station for my money is still San Francisco’s KFOG–available online but I’m sure you knew that. But of course there is a lot of repetition of the “new cuts” it plays. I love best the “10 at 10” playlists, when the DJ chooses ten songs from a given year…or perhaps it is done by random shuffle? How very iPod-like.
    I’m a little scared to try the iPod I Ching. It may tell me something I don’t want to know…

  2. susan February 28, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    My own XM-free listening favorite is WDET’s weekend music fare. Ann Delisi’s Essential Music (Sat and Sun from 11a – 2p) is just one program in the weekend music program mix that is sure to delight. Ann serves up the long forgotten favorites AND must-have new tunes that LP on 45 will need to add to the shuffle!

    And thanks, LP, for reminding me how much I love Elvis C…

    • lpon45 March 1, 2011 at 3:32 pm #

      Thanks for reminding me of Essential Music, Susan … and anything I can do to keep Elvis Costello top of mind is my pleasure!

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